Cheese, grass-fed

Grass feeding is a practice not yet familiar to all consumers. To clarify this for you, 100% grass-fed cheese comes from cows that have grazed in pasture year-round rather than being fed a processed diet for much of their life. Grass feeding improves the quality of the cheese and makes the cheese richer in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, and CLA (a beneficial fatty acid named "conjugated linoleic acid"). (For more detailed information about grass feeding, please click here.)

Just how important is grass feeding for cheese? As you will see in the chart below, we have included grass-feeding as one of our top-level recommendations for anyone who plans to include cheese in their meal plan:

Shopping for Cheese
Stick with organic Organic standards help lower risk of contaminated feed and organic cheese usually has higher nutrient quality. However, remember that organic by itself does not guarantee a natural lifestyle for the dairy cows.
Ask for 100% grass-fed Go beyond organic by asking for 100% grass-fed. Don't get sidetracked by the confusing array of labeling terms like natural" or "pasture-raised." Labeling laws allow products to display these terms even if dairy cows spend little or no time outdoors in a pasture setting. Unfortunately, even the term "grass-fed" is not sufficient since grass-fed dairy cows may have spent a relatively small amount of time grass feeding. The standard to look for on the label is "100% grass-fed." Talk to your grocer or the dairy cow farmer and find out how the animals were actually raised. In addition, if you would like more information about the practice of grass-feeding, please click here.
Consider local farmsOrganic, 100% grass-fed cheese may be available from local farms with small flocks, which provide a natural lifestyle for their dairy cows. Two websites that can help you find small local farms in your area are www.localharvest.org and www.eatwild.com. Both sites are searchable by zip code.

Provided that you keep your serving size for grass-fed cheese at 1 ounce or less, we recommend that you consume cheese made from whole milk. Not only is whole milk the least processed form of milk (placing it in the category of a whole, natural food), it's also the form of milk that will provide you with the most omega-3s and other key nutrients when it has been fermented and ripened into cheese.

Traditionally, health organizations have not recommended whole milk cheeses in the diet but rather reduced fat cheeses made from 2%, skim, or nonfat milk. Since too much total fat, too much saturated fat, and too many calories in a daily meal plan can raise the risk of certain health problems, this traditional approach makes sense for individuals who cannot make room in their daily meal plan for the amount of total fat, saturated fat, and calories contained in whole milk cheeses. However, we believe that many people who may want to include a 1-ounce serving of grass-fed cheese in their meal plan will be able to enjoy a whole milk cheese while still remaining within the guidelines for intake of total fat, saturated fat, and calories.

What's New and Beneficial About Grass-Fed Cheese

Cheese, grass fed, cheddar, whole milk
1.00 oz
(28.35 grams)
Calories: 114
GI: low

NutrientDRI/DV

 phosphorus21%

 calcium20%

 protein14%

 vitamin B1210%

Health Benefits

Broad-Based Nutrient Support

When produced with whole milk from 100% grass-fed cows, cheese contains a surprising diversity of nutrients—not just protein and calcium as many people might assume. Whole-milk grass-fed cheeses provide measurable amounts of four key fat-soluble vitamins: vitamins A, D, E, and K. They also provide antioxidant nutrients like selenium, zinc, and beta-carotene, as well as all B-complex vitamins, including B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, choline, and biotin. Whole-milk grass-fed cheeses also provide beneficial fats like omega-3s and CLA, as well as a health-promoting ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fat. There are simply few foods that offer this same diversity of nutrients. For example, while nuts and seeds can provide many of the same fat-related nutrients, they cannot provide a vitamin like B12, which is stored primary in animal foods. While vegetables can provide many of the same antioxidants in even more plentiful amounts, they rarely include measurable amounts of vitamin D. Grass-fed cheese is a truly unique food in terms of its broad range of nutrients.

Blood Sugar Balance

While we might think about cow's milk as a sweet beverage, we don't usually think about cheese as a sweet food—and for good reason. In 4 ounces of whole cow's milk, you will typically find 5-6 grams of total sugar, mostly consisting of lactose ("milk sugar"). Yet in 1 ounce of many fermented cheeses, the total sugar level is not even one-sixth of a gram; as such, fermented cheese contains about 30-40 times less lactose than milk. The reason for this smaller amount of lactose involves the nature of the cheese-making process. In order to start the process, bacteria called "lactic acid bacteria" are often added to help increase the acidity of the milk and make it more likely for some of the milk proteins (caseins) to clump together and form "curd." Lactic acid bacteria are named for their ability to take lactose and convert it lactic acid. Not all cheeses begin the production process through formation of curd with the help of lactic acid bacteria. But when milk is curded in this way, the milk's lactose content is often greatly diminished.

Cheeses curded with the help of lactic acid bacteria combine this low-sugar feature with a rich amount of protein. The high concentration of protein in cheese (it ranks as a "good" source in our WHFoods rating system) has led to its inclusion as a meat substitute in most diabetic exchange systems. Protein-rich foods are often beneficial for blood sugar control because proteins are nutrients that digest at a moderate pace through our digestive tract—not too fast and not too slow.

Along with these factors, whole-milk grass-fed cheese also contains three nutrients known to help balance blood sugar: vitamin K, vitamin D, and calcium. In a recent study from Denmark involving nearly 6,000 men and women between 30-60 years of age, better regulation of blood sugar levels was associated with moderate intake of cheese (a little less than 1 ounce per day). Consumption of other fermented dairy foods (like yogurt) was also associated with some blood sugar benefits in this study. The presence of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K in cheese may have played a special role in these blood sugar benefits since each of these nutrients has been independently linked to improved regulation of blood sugar. Interestingly, due to the use of vitamin K-synthesizing bacteria as a way to initiate the cheese fermentation process, vitamin K is present in most cheeses in the form of menaquinone. Vitamin D is present in cheese as a naturally occurring nutrient in cow's milk and sometimes as a vitamin added during milk fortification.

Other Health Benefits

In large-scale human studies, the role of dairy foods—including cheese—in relationship to bone disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer has been controversial. (We should add that we have yet to see any large-scale human studies examining the relationship between these health problems and cheese made from the whole milk of 100% grass-fed cows.) Some studies have shown decreased risk of these diseases in association with dairy and cheese intake. Other studies have shown increased risk. Yet others have shown no change in either direction.

At least part of these conflicting results may be related to the relatively high total fat, saturated fat, and calorie content of whole milk and whole milk products, coupled with the tendency of many people to consume them in large quantities. To help illustrate this point, let's consider the 1 ounce of whole-milk grass-fed cheddar cheese that we profile on our website. This serving of cheese contains 114 calories, 9.4 grams of total fat, and 6.0 grams of saturated fat. On a percentage basis, it's 74% fat and 47% saturated fat in terms of its nutrient composition. If our entire daily diet — including all foods eaten throughout the day — contained this percent total fat and this percent saturated fat, our risk of many chronic diseases would go up dramatically. But if we take steps to balance our diet while including a higher fat and higher saturated fat food like whole-milk grass-fed cheese, we can stay within public health guidelines and most likely lower our risk of many chronic diseases.

We suspect that health benefits from cheese would be more consistently documented in research studies if the cheese were optimal in quality (100% grass-fed and organic) and if it was incorporated into an overall balanced diet. On an 1,800 calorie meal plan, for example, the 6.0 grams of saturated fat found in 1 ounce of whole milk, grass-fed cheese represent less than 3% of total calories. Since organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA) generally recommend no more than 7% of total calories from saturated fat, you can see how there is room for grass-fed cheese in an 1,800 calorie meal plan, despite it's high saturated fat content. But you can also see how 3 ounces of whole-milk grass-fed cheese could push the saturated fat percentage above a 7% level and cause potential problems. If you enjoy grass-fed cheese and feel like you do well with this food included in your meal plan, you can increase your chances of broad-based health benefits by making sure that your overall diet is balanced, especially with respect to total fat and saturated fat.

Description

Cheese making has been practiced in many cultures throughout the world for at least 8,000 years. It probably began as a way to extend the life of fresh milk while preserving its nutrients. "Milk" used in the making of cheese has not always been synonymous with cow's milk, however. In many cultures, milk used to make cheese has come from other animals, including buffalo, bison, goats, sheep, camels, yaks, horses, and reindeer.

Commercially available cheeses in the U.S. are typically made from cow's milk and can generally be divided into two types: (1) "fresh" cheeses that have not been fermented, are typically very soft in texture, and have a short shelf life, and (2) "ripened" cheeses that have been fermented and aged for a period of weeks, months, or longer and which have a firmer texture and a longer shelf life.

Soft, unripened cheeses include cottage cheese, ricotta, water-packed "fresh" mozzarella, queso fresco, and fromage blanc. Instead of being fermented with the help of bacteria, these unripened cheeses are made by adding either an acidic substance (for example, vinegar, lemon juice or citric acid) or the enzyme rennet to the milk, or in some cases both. Acidic substances and rennet will cause the casein proteins in milk to coagulate and form "curds." (Rennet has the advantage of producing a stronger and more gel-like consistency in the curds.) Once the watery "whey" portion of the milk is drained off, only the curds are left and those curds are what we call "unripened" cheese. Unless a cheese has been aged for 60 days or longer, it must be made from pasteurized milk if sold in the U.S. and this rule applies to all of the unripened cheeses listed above.

Ripened cheeses are cheeses that not only undergo the curding process described above but also a fermentation process in which bacteria and other micro-organisms are added to the cheese and given time to develop new textures, flavors, and aromas. While ripened cheeses might initially be curded in the same way as unripened cheeses—namely, through addition of acid substances like lemon juice, vinegar, or citric acid to cause the formation of curds—many are not curded in this way. Instead, they are curded with the help of "starter bacteria." To accomplish curding in this way, lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are added to the milk. LAB will consume the lactose (milk sugar) present in the milk and convert it into lactic acid. Like vinegar and lemon juice, the lactic acid produced by LAB is an acidic substance that will cause the milk to curd. LAB commonly used to start acid coagulation process include Lactococcus lactis, Streptococcus thermophiles, Lactobacillus helveticus, and Lactobacillus delbreuckii. For persons who are lactose intolerant and experience an adverse reaction to dairy products because of their lactose content, the use of starter bacteria to begin the cheese making process can be a plus since these bacteria can convert much of the lactose in milk to lactic acid. In 4 ounces of whole cow's milk, you'll typically get 5-6 grams of total sugar, mostly consisting of lactose. In 1 ounce of whole milk cheese that has been curded with the help of starter bacteria, you'll get one-thirtieth, one-fortieth, or even one-fiftieth this amount. This greatly reduced amount of lactose is sometimes low enough to be tolerated even by individuals who are lactose intolerant.

In order to complete the process of producing a ripened cheese, the first round of "starter bacteria" used to produce lactic acid and trigger formation of the curd is followed by a second round of "ripening bacteria" whose job is to ferment the curd and develop the unique textures, flavors, and aromas found in ripened cheeses. During the ripening stage, yeasts and molds may be added along with bacteria to develop the unique cheese characteristics. Ripening of cheese may take weeks, months, or years, depending on the goals of the cheesemaker and the preferences of the consumer. Some ripened mozzarella cheeses may have only been ripened for a few weeks while some grocery store cheddars may have been aged for over ten years. Below is a chart showing some of the microorganisms used during the starter or ripening stage for some well-known ripened cheeses.

Cheese typeExample of microorganisms used for ripeningTotal ripening time
BluePenicillium roquefortii (mold)2-6 months
BriePenicillium camemberti (mold)4-8 weeks
CheddarLactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum (bacteria)4 weeks to 10 years depending on type
FetaLactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus fermentum, Lactobacillus coryniformis (bacteria); Kluyveromyces, Pichia, Candida (yeasts)4-6 weeks, and sometimes longer
GruyereCandida, Debaryomyces, Kluyveromyces (yeasts)5 months to 2 years
ParmesanLactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus delbreuckii (bacteria) 9-24 months
SwissPropionibacterium freudenreichii, Propionibacterium jensenii, Propionibacterium thoenii, Propionibacterium acidiproionici (bacteria) 3-9 months

Ripened cheeses are sometimes classified by geography. "American" cheeses typically include cheddar, colby, jack, colby jack, monterey, and monterey jack. Italian cheeses include mozzarella, Parmesan, provolone, and Asiago. For Hispanic cheeses the list includes queso blanco, queso fresco, cotija, and panela. However, consumers across the world enjoy many of the cheeses regardless of location, and most cheese types are produced in cheese-producing countries.

"Probiotic" cheeses

Increasingly popular in the U.S. marketplace are "probiotic" cheeses that contain greater amounts of "friendly" bacteria than other cheeses. Virtually all fermented cheeses contain living bacteria. But the number of living bacteria in any given cheese may be relatively small. Bacteria in cheese are usually measured in what are called "colony forming units" or CFUs. A fermented cheese may typically contain 10,000's of CFUs per gram or perhaps 1,000's of CFU's per gram. By contrast, a probiotic cheese that has been deliberately inoculated with friendly bacteria (that will be able to survive in large numbers in our digestive tract after the cheese is consumed) may contain millions or even billions of CFUs. (An informal and voluntary industry standard for a probiotic cheese is one million CFUs per gram of cheese.) In one preliminary study of older individuals (with an average age of 86 years) consuming one-half ounce of probiotic cheese every day for 4 weeks, researchers were able to detect immune system benefits, including increased activity of immune cells and increased numbers of some immune cell types (particularly phagocytes).

Non-dairy cheeses

After experiencing an adverse reaction to cheese, many consumers have looked for cheese substitutes not made from cow's milk. Many companies now produce non-dairy cheeses, including soy cheeses, rice cheeses, and almond cheeses. These non-dairy cheeses are sometimes referred to as "vegan" cheeses since their baseline ingredients often come from legumes, nuts, or grains rather than animal milk. As a general rule, however, we recommend a note of caution when choosing non-dairy cheeses as a regular part of your meal plan. Some "non-dairy" cheeses actually add casein proteins into the cheese, and it is common to find vegetable oils, vegetable flours, and added flavorings in these cheeses. For all of the above reasons, we would describe many non-dairy cheeses as being more highly processed than traditionally fermented cheeses. And because most non-dairy cheeses are not made through a fermentation process, it is often difficult for them to take on the unique textures, flavors, and aromas of fermented cheese. If you can find vegan cheeses that have been fermented and aged in the same way as animal milk cheeses, they are almost always your best option in this area of non-dairy cheeses.

One added note on "non-dairy" cheeses: some people make a distinction between cow's milk and the milks of other animals when using the word "dairy." In other words, they refer to cow's milk cheese as a "dairy" product, but they refer to goat milk cheese or sheep milk cheese as "non-dairy." Regardless of the term used, however, cow's milk, goat's milk, and sheep's milk have some important commonalities in terms of their chemical composition and also some important differences. Because there is no simple rule about the composition of milks from different animals, there is also no simple way to predict how a person will react to cheeses made from different types of animal milks. For example one people may do better on goat's milk cheese than cow's milk cheese, but another person may not. If you are actively trying to figure out a way to include non-cow's milk cheeses in your regular meal plan, you may want to seek the help of a healthcare practitioner to help you determine your best steps in this area.

History

As described earlier, cheese making has been practiced in many cultures throughout the world for at least 8,000 years. The popularity of animal milk made it natural for people to try and preserve the "shelf life" of fresh milk along with its valuable nutrients. From a historical perspective, the milk used to make cheese did not come mainly from cows. Many different animals were valued for their milk, including buffalo, bison, goats, sheep, camels, yaks, horses, and reindeer. Early on in human history, cheese was made from the milk of all of these animals.

In 2012, 912 million pounds of cheese were produced in the U.S., with Italian cheeses (e.g., mozzarella, Parmesan, provolone, ricotta and Romano) and American cheeses (e.g., cheddar, Colby, Monterey, jack) each accounting for about 40% of the total. The remaining 20% included cream cheese, Nufchatel, Swiss, and Hispanic cheeses.

While you might expect production and consumption of cheese in the U.S. to follow closely after production and consumption of milk, these two dairy products have undergone a very different trend in the U.S. marketplace. Over the past 40 years, U.S. milk production has increased by about 50%, although consumption of milk as a beverage in liquid form has decreased by about 30%. By contrast, consumption of cheese in the U.S. has nearly doubled from an annual per capita rate of about 17 pounds in 1980 to nearly 34 pounds in 2012. Some of cheese's increasing popularity involves increasing availability of ethnic cuisines that include unique cheese varieties long-valued in cultural traditions.

With over 2.5 billion pounds of cheese produced in 2011, Wisconsin led the U.S. states in terms of cheese production. California was the country's second largest cheese producer at 2.25 billion pounds. Cheddar and mozzarella accounted for about two-thirds of all cheese produced.

How to Select and Store

There are different purchase qualities to look for depending upon the cheese type. Soft cheeses should be uniform in color throughout, and the cheese should fill out the crust casing, which itself should be free from cracks and not too dry. Semi-firm cheese should not be too crumbly or dry with the color being relatively uniform. Hard cheeses should be uniform in color and have a firm, uncracked rind that is not too dry or pasty. Bleu cheeses should be not too dry nor too crumbly, and should feature veining that is evenly distributed.

If your market has a cheese department, speak with the person who specializes in cheese. She or he can help you choose the best quality cheese as well as introduce you to different cheeses that you may not have yet tried, which can help you to expand your repertoire and more greatly appreciate this wonderful food.

All cheeses, regardless of variety, should be well wrapped and kept in the warmest section of the refrigerator. (The refrigerator door is often one of the warmest spots). As storage life is related to the moisture content of the cheese, the softer the cheese, the shorter amount of time it will keep fresh. In general, firm and semi-firm cheeses will keep for two weeks while soft and grated cheeses will keep for about one week.

How to Enjoy

A Few Quick Serving Ideas

When considering any of the serving ideas below, please continue to select grass-fed versions of all cheeses whenever possible.

For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.

Safety

Cheese is a complicated food in terms of potential adverse reactions. We'd like to give you some detailed information that you may find helpful if you want to include cheese in your meal plan but are also concerned about this food as a good fit for you individually.

Cheese and Adverse Reactions

Milk and the foods made from it, including cheese, are among the eight food types considered to be major food allergens in the U.S., requiring identification on food labels. Some people also have an intolerance to cheese owing to the lactose sugar that it contains. For helpful information about this topic, please see our article, An Overview of Adverse Food Reactions.

Cheese and Amines

In general, the longer a cheese is aged, the more digestible it becomes. The reason for this increased digestibility is simple—more of the fats and proteins in the cheese are broken down over time by living bacteria and other microorganisms present in the cheese. It wouldn't be wrong to described highly aged cheeses as "pre-digested," in the sense of having many of their proteins and fats already broken down before the cheese is consumed as a food.

While generally more digestible and less likely to cause an adverse reaction for this very reason, aged cheeses are problematic for some individuals who experience adverse reactions to protein-related substances called "amines." One of the changes that can happen during cheese aging is conversion of protein building blocks—called amino acids—into amines. Many bacteria are able to trigger this conversion process. These bacteria can take an amino acid like tyrosine and convert it into the amine called "tyramine." Similarly, they can take the amino acid tryptophan and convert it into the amine called "tryptamine." And they can take the amino acid histidine and convert it into the amine called "histamine." Tyramine, tryptamine, and histamine are examples of molecules sometimes referred to as "bioactive amines." This term is used to indicate the ability of tyramine, tryptamine, and histamine to influence nervous system and brain metabolism in susceptible persons. A migraine headache is a prominent example of the unwanted effect that dietary amines can sometimes have on a person who is sensitive to their presence in food. If you already know that you are sensitive to amines in food, you may want to avoid all cheeses in your meal plan. If you experience adverse reactions to cheese, do not know why, but still want to include cheese in your meal plan if possible, you will probably need the help of a healthcare practitioner to figure out whether amines in fermented cheeses are an issue, or whether you are experience adverse reactions for other reasons.

Rennet

As described earlier, rennet is an enzyme often used to help trigger coagulation of casein proteins in milk and the formation of cheese curds. Researchers have actually pinpointed the exact role of rennet in this process. There are typically four basic types of casein proteins found in cow's milk, and they are often found floating around throughout the milk in small clusters called micelles. One specific type of casein protein—called kappa casein—is found on the surface of these clusters.

Kappa casein has a small hair-like projection that sticks out into the watery fluid portion of the milk and attracts water. This characteristic of the kappa casein allows the casein clusters to stay dispersed throughout the milk. The rennet enzyme, when added to milk, works to cut the kappa caseins hairs in such a way that the casein clusters begin to repel water rather than attracting it. Once the clusters begin repelling the water, they naturally start clumping together and forming "curd." By altering the kappa casein molecules, rennet is able to trigger a more gel-like formation of curd that is also relatively sturdy. For these reasons, cheese makers often prefer to include some rennet when beginning the curding process.

In order to help them digest their mother's milk, calves naturally produce rennet in their stomachs. In the cheese-making industry, rennet has often been obtained from the stomachs of young calves slaughtered for production of veal, usually between 16-18 weeks of age. For ethical reasons, some individuals seek to avoid cheeses produced with the use of rennet from slaughtered calves. These individuals draw a distinction between the obtaining of milk from animals in a non-harmful way and the making of cheese from this milk, versus the harm done to animals to obtain an enzyme for the cheese-making process. In the U.S. marketplace, more and more cheeses are becoming available which feature alterntatives to calf-based rennet. Some of these cheeses are produced with plant-based rennet. Examples of plants that can serve as a source for rennet include nettle, thistle, safflower, and fig (leaf or bark). Bacterially derived rennet is also used in the production of some cheeses as an alternative to calf rennet. We've also seen cheeses made with genetically modified rennet, but these cheeses would be prohibited from sale as organic since certified organic foods cannot contain genetically modified components, and we do not recommend cheeses made in this way. Look for the terms "rennet free" or "vegetarian rennet" on the label of your cheese if you are seeing to avoid calf-based rennet.

Other Controversies

Some animal foods and some plants foods have been the subject of ongoing controversy that extends well beyond the scope of food, nutrient-richness, and personal health. This controversy often involves environmental issues, or issues related to the natural lifestyle of animals or to the native habitat for plants. Cheese has been a topic of ongoing controversy in this regard. Our Controversial Foods Q & A will provide you with more detailed information about these issues.

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read detailed information on our
Food and Recipe Rating System.

Cheese, grass fed, cheddar, whole milk
1.00 oz
28.35 grams
Calories: 114
GI: low
NutrientAmountDRI/DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
phosphorus145.15 mg213.3good
calcium204.40 mg203.2good
protein7.06 g142.2good
vitamin B120.24 mcg101.6good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DRI/DV>=75% OR
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
very good DRI/DV>=50% OR
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
good DRI/DV>=25% OR
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%

References

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