Cheese. Some love it, some hate it. But you can’t deny that it’s on a roll. Since 1970, we’ve nearly tripled how much we eat. And it’s not just in the dishes where you’d typically see cheese, like pizza and quesadillas. It’s on salads, sandwiches, pasta, on top of vegetables, you name it.
Want a cheese that delivers the goods (flavor, protein, calcium) with the least bads (calories, saturated fat, salt)? Check out these 5 tips.
1. Watch the serving size.
When comparing labels, watch out for:
- Slice vs. block. Cheeses that come sliced may look lower in calories, saturated fat, and sodium because their labels list a smaller serving (usually a 3/4 oz. slice) than blocks or shredded cheese (1 oz.).
- Skinny slices. It’s not easy to tell whether really skinny slices like Kraft Slim Cut or Sargento Ultra Thin are better or worse than ordinary slices because the slims’ and thins’ labels show both a 1-slice (about 1/3 oz.) and a 3-slice (about 1 oz.) serving. It comes down to how many slices you use and whether the cheese is reduced-fat (like Kraft Slim Cut) or full-fat (like Sargento Ultra Thin).
2. Look for sat fat steals.
Ignore the man-bites-dog headlines. Saturated fat still raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. Solution: eat less cheese…or look for products that have no more than 3 grams of saturated fat per serving—roughly half what you’d get in full-fat cheese. They’re usually labeled “lite,” “2% milk,” “50% less fat,” “reduced fat,” or “part-skim.”
Bonus: many cheeses that are lower in sat fat are also lower in calories. An ounce of Cabot Sharp Light Cheddar, for example, supplies 8 grams of protein and 20 percent of a day’s calcium for 70 calories. An ounce of the company’s full-fat Vermont Sharp Cheddar (with roughly the same protein and calcium) will cost you 110 calories. Why do most fresh mozzarellas have 3 grams of sat fat or less even though they’re full fat? It’s because they contain more water than regular mozzarella (or most other cheeses).
3. Keep an eye on salt.
Looking for less sodium? Swiss cheese (many have 40 to 60 milligrams of sodium per ounce) and fresh mozzarella (typically 80 to 100 mg) are naturally lower than other types. Try to choose cheeses with no more than 200 mg of sodium per serving.
Tip: Skip Kraft fat-free shredded cheeses. Ounce for ounce, they have about 100 mg more sodium (280 mg) than shredded lower-fat cheeses from Horizon Organic, Sargento, Trader Joe’s, and Kraft’s 2% Milk line.
4. Watch out for non-dairy cheeses with little or no protein or calcium.
Most dairy-free (vegan) cheeses are nearly protein-free, with 0 or 1 gram per ounce instead of cheese’s usual 5 to 8 grams. That’s because they’re mostly water, oil (coconut, canola, palm, or soybean), and starches.
Exception: Treeline Aged Treenut Cheeses get 5 grams of protein per ounce from cashews. And many non-vegan “cheese alternatives”—like Go Veggie Lactose Free or Trader Joe’s Almond Mozzarella Style Shreds—add enough casein (a milk protein) to reach 6 grams of protein per ounce. But only Go Veggie consistently adds calcium. Most Field Roast, Follow Your Heart, and Treeline have zip.
5. Watch the claims.
You can ignore most of them. Almost all cheese is made with “simple” ingredients and has “no added sugar.” Most hard cheeses are lactose-free—or close to it. (Lactose is milk sugar, so check the “Sugars” line on the Nutrition Facts label.) And any cheese that isn’t processed (like Kraft Singles) can call itself “natural.”
Here are a few of our favorite cheeses. What would you add to this list?
Find this article interesting and useful? Nutrition Action Healthletter subscribers regularly get sound, timely information about staying healthy with diet and exercise, delicious recipes, and detailed analyses of the healthy and unhealthy foods in supermarkets and restaurants. If you don’t already subscribe to the world’s most popular nutrition newsletter, click here to join hundreds of thousands of fellow health-minded consumers.