There are some ingredients—kale, for one—that tout an apparent health halo. But most foods are all about balance. Cheese is the perfect example: it’s deliciously indulgent (ahem, high in saturated fat), but also has a heavy hit of protein, phosphorus, calcium, and more.
We’ll cut to the chase. The key (to almost everything in life, cheese included) is moderation. But choosing the right cheeses is what makes moderation work, meaning picking those that are packed with great flavor so you feel satisfied without having to polish off the entire platter.
“No matter how you slice it, cheese is a nutrient-rich food,” says Sharon Richter, Registered Dietician. So what is the healthiest cheese?
“I tell my clients that if they want to mindfully indulge, make the flavor count! For example, I encourage them to add aged cheeses into their favorite dishes, because their flavors are stronger, sharper, and fuller-bodied, so you don’t need as much to get a lot of flavor impact. This makes portion control easier as well.” To that end, it may be easiest to think of cheese as an ingredient that’ll punch up the flavor of dishes, like soups or salads, rather than a standalone snack.
Sharon helped us break down the healthiest cheeses to eat for every person and palette. No matter your taste preferences or dietary restrictions, there’s a delicious dairy product here for you.
For those looking to lower the sodium in their diet
Salt (and therefore sodium) plays an important role in cheesemaking, because it controls moisture, texture, taste, functionality and food safety. So, while salt can’t be completely eliminated, some cheeses require less than others and lower-sodium cheeses are also available. As a rule of thumb, remember this tip: softer, less-aged cheeses typically require less salt than harder, aged varieties.
Sharon recommends Swiss, Monterey Jack, ricotta, or Parmesan (like Sartori’s SarVecchio). “It’s fruity with hints of lightly roasted caramel, aged to crumbly perfections and made by Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers. Big on flavor, not on salt!” she says.
If you’re looking to cut back on fat
Opt for Parmesan or part-skim mozzarella. “You can also try lower fat options like cottage cheese, ricotta, and cheddar, but avoid any processed ‘reduced fat’ cheese products. They’re likely making up for that fat reduction in other areas and boosting preservatives,” Sharon says. At the end of the day, you want to look for cheeses with the most wholesome ingredients—your body knows how to process those best, too.
If you’d like to boost the calcium and/or protein in your diet
Good news: the dairy group is the number two top source of dietary calcium for Americans. To boost your calcium and/or protein, check out Swiss, cheddar, gouda, ricotta, mozzarella, or Colby. You can also substitute quark for Greek yogurt to pump up your protein even more.
If you’re searching for lactose intolerant options
Natural cheeses such as cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, and Swiss contain minimal amounts of lactose, because most of the lactose is removed when the curds are separated from the whey in the cheesemaking process.
Final word: as a visual reminder of a serving size of cheese, remember that 1 ½ ounces looks about the same size as four dice-size cubes. We can roll with that.