A Guide to Buying Healthy Cheese
With hundreds of different types of cheese available in the grocery store, it can certainly be hard to distinguish the best from the rest. From hard to soft, and shredded to brick, there are so many different varieties and flavours of cheese available, and although many versions appear to be real cheese, many of them are not at all. Cheese has been part of cultural diets around the world for centuries, so it can certainly be included in a healthy diet if done well. Fortunately, with a little know how you will be able to distinguish the real deal from the imposters, so here is a simple guide to buying healthy cheese to ensure you know what to look for and why.
What is real cheese?
First things first, it is important to understand what cheese actually is. Cheese is made by separating milk into curd and whey, and by adding cultures (called ‘starter cultures’) and enzymes. The cultures added are lactic-acid-forming bacteria that change the lactose (sugar) in milk into lactic acid; this chemical change prompts the milk to curdle, while the enzymes join up the proteins in the milk to allow the milk fully to coagulate and form the curd. Once separated, the whey is removed and the curd is broken up, salt is often added for flavour, as a preservative and to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria. Once this is done, the curd is then placed into molds, pressed to remove the last bits of whey, and taken to a cool, humid store to mature. By tweaking these steps and introducing different cultures, producers are able to create a vast range of cheeses, textures and types.
Real Cheese vs. Processed Cheese
One of the major concerns with cheese is that the cheese found in grocery stores if often more of a cheese-like-product than actual cheese itself. Real cheese should only contain milk, enzymes, cultures and salt, while many cheese options in the grocery store contain additional ingredients and additives.
I think it goes without saying that cheese slices are not real cheese, they contain 21 ingredients after all, however many other types of cheese contain unnecessary additional ingredients making them more processed than real. For instance, some cheeses contain added colouring or refined salt, while others are made with modified milk ingredients, which is a processed form of milk.
What to Look For
When it comes to buying healthy cheese there are a few important factors to consider.
1. The Quality of the Milk
Milk is the foundational ingredient in cheese and therefore the quality of the milk itself will determine how good the cheese is. Ideally, cheese should be made from the milk of pastured, grass-fed cows. The quality of milk heavily depends on the diet and health of the animal it comes from, so it is imperative that the animals consumed a natural diet of grass and were exposed to substantial amounts of sunlight on the pasture. In fact, their diet and exposure to sunlight are two of the most important contributing factors to the amount of vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 and vitamin K2 present in the milk, and therefore the cheese itself. The type of animal is much less of a concern as cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk can all create healthy cheeses.
2. Made with Real Salt
In addition to the milk, salt is an important ingredient in the cheese making process, so a cheese made with real salt, as opposed to refined salt, will be of much higher quality.
3. Fat Content
Real cheese should be made from whole milk, not skim milk, low-fat milk, non-fat milk or any combination of modified milk ingredients. Milk in its natural state contains fat, as it should, and that is exactly what cheese should be made from. From a nutritional perspective, cheese is a good source of fat and protein, in addition to fat-soluble vitamins K2 and D, which means they are only present when fat is present. Opting for low-fat or fat-free cheese more or less defeats the nutritional purpose of eating cheese in the first place. If you are concerned about saturated fat in cheese, you need not be as this is one of the biggest food myth of the 20th century causing us far more harm than good.
4. Opt for Raw if Possible
Raw cheeses are legal in Canada and a great option when you are looking for a healthy cheese. Raw milk is a complete food, containing proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, cholesterol, and beneficial bacteria (probiotics), and when it comes from pastured, grass-fed animal is the best option.
The Bottom Line
Although it might now seem impossible to find a healthy cheese, I assure you it is not. When it comes to your options, here are the ones to prioritize.
The best option would be to find cheese made from raw whole milk from pastured cows with minimal ingredients. These types of cheese are commonly found at farmer’s markets or specialty food shops. Alternatively, look in the deli section of your grocery store for cheese made with minimal ingredients, as healthy cheeses are rarely found in the aisle with sliced cheese or shredded cheeses. If raw milk is not an option, opt for cheeses from pastured cows, and if pastured cheeses are also not an option simply ensure the cheese you are selecting is made from a combination of whole milk, sea salt, microbial enzyme, and bacterial cultures.