When it comes to health and nutrition, cheese is often the victim of a bad reputation. Yes, it is a source of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, the “big baddies” when it comes to a heart-healthy lifestyle and diet. But unlike some other indulgent foods we try to avoid (let’s say chocolate cake and full-fat crisps), cheese is a complete, natural food with some rather healthy redeeming qualities. When eaten in moderation as part of a sensibly balanced diet, cheese is an excellent source of nutrition.
Let’s take a look at cheese’s nutritional profile and understand its benefits, especially when it comes to strong teeth and bones.
When eaten with portion-control and serving size in mind (one serving of cheese is about 30 to 40grammes) cheese can play a delicious role in a well-balanced diet. High levels of the following vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are found in cheese:
Vitamin A: Also found in green and yellow vegetables, egg yolks and fish-liver oil, vitamin A is essential to bone growth and vision. It plays a vital role in cell division and helps boost the immune system.
Vitamin B-12: Like other B vitamins, B-12 is important for metabolism and DNA production. It also helps maintain healthy red blood cells and nerve cells. In addition to dairy products, the vitamin can be found in meat, poultry, and shellfish.
Vitamin D: Essential for the absorption of calcium, vitamin D assists in the production and maintenance of strong teeth and bones. Other sources include fish, oysters, and fortified cereals and milks.
Protein: Found in meat and animal products, protein is an essential building block for all living organisms. It is contained by every cell in the body and maintains important tissues, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Protein is required for healthy growth and development and is especially important for children and teens.
Phosphorus: This mineral works with protein to grow, maintain, and repair cells and body tissues. About 85% of the body’s phosphorus is found in the bones and teeth. It also assists with proper functioning of the muscles, kidneys, nerves, and heart.
Calcium: An essential constituent of healthy bones, muscles, and teeth, this mineral is important for the growth and maintenance of the entire body. Adequate amounts of calcium are required at all stages of life, but particularly for children. Calcium is also responsible for many body functions, including muscle contractions, nerve impulses, and normal heartbeat. Dairy products like cheese, yogurt, and buttermilk offer the most significant source.
The high levels of phosphorus and calcium in cheese seem to especially be of benefit when it comes to our teeth. A British Nutrition Foundation report has concluded that eating cheese after a meal or sugary snack can help protect against tooth decay and even restore some of the minerals in our tooth enamel. According the study, cheeses like Mozzarella, Cheddar, American, and Swiss have an antibacterial effect in the mouth. They help neutralize and wash away the acid on teeth, and also prevent sugar on enamel from turning into tooth-damaging bacteria.
In addition to strengthening teeth, cheese can play a role in staving off osteoporosis, a debilitating condition in which bones become so porous and fragile that they easily fracture or break. In the UK, one in three women and one in eight men over the age of 50 suffers from osteoporosis. But eating just one 30g serving of Cheddar (about the size of a matchbox) each day provides 216 mg of calcium, significantly helping you reach the recommended daily levels of calcium to prevent it. The UK Food Standards Agency currently recommends 1000mg of calcium per day for adults 19 to 70, and 1200mg per day for those over 70.
Food safety agencies worldwide have issued warnings about the health risks of consuming raw-milk cheeses. That is because these soft, unpasteurised varieties are more likely to grow infectious bacteria such as listeria, salmonella, and tuberculosis. In Australia there is a wide ban on raw-milk cheeses, and in the U.S., they are required by law to be aged at least 60 days. In Europe, raw-milk cheeses are still legal in some countries, and many people say the health concerns about raw-milk cheeses are overblown.
Indeed, infections like listeria are very rare, but if you have a compromised immune system or are pregnant, it is advised that certain cheeses be avoided. Simply stay away from raw, unpastuerised goat and sheep’s milk cheeses (Chabichou, Pyramide), mould-ripened soft cheeses (Brie, Camembert) and blue-veined cheeses (Roquefort, Stilton) and enjoy pasteurised, hard-ripened, or soft-processed varieties instead. Favourites like Gloucester, Havarti, Gouda, Lancashire, Mozzarella, Parmesan, Boursin, Mascarpone, and Ricotta are all deliciously safe to eat.
People suffering from lactose intolerance often avoid cheese and other dairy products at all costs. But the good news is, some of your favourite cheeses can be enjoyed without worry. Aged cheeses have almost no lactose, and ripened cheeses like Cheddar and Swiss naturally contain very little. In fact, Cheddar has just 5% of the lactose found in whole milk. So go ahead and enjoy a slice – health benefits and all!