Cheese 101: History, Types & Dietary Pros and Cons

Cheese has a long history as being an important part of the human diet throughout many cultures.  

Recently cheese has gotten some negative press and is shunned by many popular diets  like Paleo, Whole30, and vegan.  This article talks all about cheese including its history, types, and dietary pros and cons so you can decide if it’s truly friend or foe.

A Brief History Of Cheese

The history of cheese predates written history.

There is evidence from archeological remains that cheese was being made in what is now Poland as early as 5500 BC. However, some suggest it’s been made since 8000 BC. Cheesemaking had spread across Europe by the Roman Empire, and is now made throughout the world.

How Is It Made?

Cheese helps preserve the fats and proteins in milk.

Animal stomachs and skins have long been used as a way to store and transport food and items well before tupperware!  It’s been suggested that milk stored in an animal’s stomach turned to cheese, as the milk interacted with enzymes in the stomach.

The basis of making cheese is curdling milk through adding acid, bacteria cultures, and then adding enzymes such as rennet (which come from the stomach of a young cow) to firm the cheese. Most cheese is made from bacteria in the lactobacillus family, but there are other strains that can be added.

Then, the liquid whey is separated from the solid curds. The cheese is salted and aged to change or enhance its flavor.

Cooking temperature and time determines the cheeses’ firmness.  Hard cheese like parmesan will get cooked at a higher temperature than a soft cheese like ricotta.

The cheese is then pressed and cured to make it unique.

Why Cheese Gets A Bad Rap

Recently, cheese has been targeted as an unhealthy food, as it is high in saturated fat, calories, and sodium.

The milk used to make cheese could potentially contain hormones and  antibiotics from the animal that produced the milk.  

There are also studies that suggest cheese intake may contribute to cancer, obesity, and cardiovascular disease due to its high saturated fat content.  It’s possible that these findings may also be linked to the foods paired with the cheese.

Cheese can also be calorie-dense, averaging 90-110 calories per ounce. An ounce is as small as two dice!

Some cheeses, such as brie, gorgonzola, and other bleu cheeses contain mold for flavoring, preserving and/or aging. Therefore, those that are sensitive or allergic to mold should avoid these cheeses.  

Cheese also contains minimal amounts of the sugar lactose, and the protein casein, so those who are highly lactose intolerant or allergic to milk-proteins should limit/avoid cheese.  

If you follow a low-sodium diet, then you should limit the intake of higher-salt cheeses like feta, bleu cheese, and processed cheeses.  Lower-sodium cheese choices include mozzarella, swiss, and cottage cheeses.

More Cheese, Please!

Cheese can be a part of a well-balanced diet, with many health benefits.

It contains calcium, protein, and vitamin B12 and K2, all essential nutrients, especially in the vegetarian diet.  These nutrients may play a role in bone, heart and gut health.

Bone Health

Calcium is important for tooth and bone health, and cheese may be a beneficial source of calcium and other nutrients important for bone density and strength.  An ounce of cheddar or mozzarella cheese has about 200 mg, or 20%, of your daily calcium requirements.

Cheese made with milk from grass-fed animals may be higher in vitamin K2. This vitamin is also essential for bone health as it helps with calcium absorption.

Heart Health

Full-fat cheese consumption has been linked to decreased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease . Different studies support different views that cheese can either be helpful or harmful to cardiovascular health. More research is necessary to confirm these findings.

Gut Health

The good bacteria in cheese may be beneficial for gut health as it may help diversify the bacteria in the gut.

Microbiome diversity supports the overall health of the intestines.  

Also, bacteria in cheese may allow for those who are lactose intolerant to eat small amounts of cheese without bloating or gas as the bacteria “eat” some of the lactose and convert it to a more digestible product.

Other Nutrients

Some of the fats in cheeses can be beneficial. For instance, palmitoleate is a fatty acid which could help protect against insulin spikes, and help with inflammation.

Cheese also has conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may be anti-inflammatory, act as and may boost the immune system. Some studies show that CLA may have a very modest impact on weight loss.


Cheese can be a great source of the milk protein casein, averaging 7-8 grams per ounce, with some cheeses such as parmesan containing up to 10 grams per ounce.  

Protein is important for growth, cell repair, and for the production of hormones and enzymes in the body.  

Pick Your Cheese Wisely

Cheeses have a variety of levels of protein, sodium, and fat, so it’s important to choose wisely.

Avoid processed cheeses as they could contain fillers such as other vegetable oils, emulsifiers, starches, and gums.  The same can go for low-fat cheeses.

Some cheeses, such as feta cheese, are naturally lower in fat, but others will be less cheese and just contain additives to reduce the fat content.

Softer, younger cheeses tend to be lower in sodium.  Swiss and Gruyere are lower in sodium than other cheeses. Strong, aged cheeses like pecorino romano, or aged parmesan, pack a lot of salt in a smaller serving.  Just a sprinkle of a strong cheese may get you all the flavor you need!

If you are lactose intolerant, most cheese is okay in small quantities, but avoid ricotta and cottage cheese that are higher in lactose.

Mozzarella cheese is slightly less calorie-dense per serving (~90 calories per ounce versus 110 for cheddar). This means it can make for a good snacking cheese.

Cheese Recommendations

For many people, eating small to moderate amounts of cheese as part of a balanced diet may have many health benefits.

Those that can’t eat lactose or casein may have to avoid cheese. If you are on a low-sodium diet, you may have to choose cheeses that are lower in sodium content.

Overall, cheese, just like many other foods, is not our enemy despite some bad press.

Enjoy it! 


By Laren Rusin, Clinical Nutrition Intern for MUIH