Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
29 Apr

Is All Cheese Created Equal?

The answer to that question is (hopefully) pretty obvious, but I’ll still explain why.

Short answer: No.

Slightly longer answer: C’mon – you really think that stuff you can spray out of an aerosol can is qualitatively identical to a 2-year old Gouda?

Long answer: The paleo purists shun all forms of dairy, but the Primal Blueprint takes a more nuanced stance. We note that while dairy certainly shouldn’t form the basis for an eating regimen, certain forms of it can easily be integrated seamlessly into a healthy, Primal eating strategy as a sensible vice, especially the highest-fat choices (a bit of heavy cream in the morning coffee, some real whipped cream with strawberries for dessert) or even a staple (pastured butter for sautéing and drizzling over vegetables). Of course, for those who can more easily digest (lactose-wise) certain forms and who insist on including it in their diet, sticking to dairy that’s as close to the state it was in upon exodus from the animal in question is important (raw dairy, kids), as is avoiding the stuff treated with all sorts of preservatives and processing (homogenized semi-skim milk product with antibiotics, anyone?).

But we’ve tackled the dairy issue before. To recap, though – if you must have it, raw, full fat dairy, especially fermented, is best, followed by organic, non-homogenized dairy (for reference, milk homogenization involves exerting extreme pressure onto milk and forcing it through small holes so that the fat breaks up…. Yum!). I do think the paleo set is a bit too gung-ho about dairy, but they’ve got it mostly right. The long-purported link between osteoporosis and lower milk/calcium intake is grossly exaggerated (how else would you explain the US, one of the biggest dairy consumers in the world, having some of the highest osteoporosis rates?), but some people have obviously developed digestive systems that can handle dairy reasonably well. The most sensible position is this: if you can handle dairy and insist on including it, then have at it in reasonable amounts.

Cheese, though, is a different beast altogether. It’s technically dairy, but much of what makes dairy so problematic for people is mostly absent from the best cheeses. Take lactose, for example. Lactose, or milk sugar, is what keeps the roughly 2/3 of the world’s population that are lactose intolerant from consuming dairy (other than availability or cultural issues, of course). When most cheese is made, however, the lactose in milk is converted into lactic acid by bacteria. The resultant acid begins the curdling process that eventually results in cheese, and little – if any – lactose remains at the end. Sometimes even trace amounts of lactose can trigger sensitive individuals, but cheese is usually fairly safe. A good general rule is the longer a cheese is aged, the less lactose it’ll have. Another thing to remember: the less lactose a cheese has, the less carbohydrates.

Another problematic dairy component is casein, a type of protein that makes up the bulk of the dairy proteins (along with whey). Casein is a “slow burning” protein, making it popular among body builders who place a premium on maximum absorption, but casein is also an allergen for a small segment of the population. Casein allergy is more insidious than lactose intolerance, because it can result in tearing of the gut lining (akin to celiac disease), skin rashes, breathing problems, and hives. Though it’s fairly rare, people who are allergic to casein might want to avoid cheese: when cheese is made, most of the whey protein is removed (hence, curds and whey) while most of the casein protein is retained.

So depending on your sensitivities, cheese could either be incredibly agreeable or horribly antagonistic. It exists in Primal limbo along with raw dairy, a sort of gray area. On the one hand, cheese has admirable levels of fat, protein, and flavor, but on the other, it has the lactose and casein issues (as well as another, which I’ll get to later). As such, I can’t give you a definitive answer as to whether or not you should eat cheese. Personally, I enjoy a bit of aged cheese on occasion paired with fruit or wine, or in an omelet. It’s not a staple of my diet (don’t pull a George Costanza and eat a block of cheese like an apple), but it can definitely add texture, flavor, and aroma to a dish as a sensible vice. If you’re so inclined, there’s no reason cheese couldn’t be a harmless part of a healthy Primal eating plan.

But what kind should you be eating?

It goes without saying that the ultra-processed cheese that comes in plastic sleeves or pre-shredded in bags should be avoided. That stuff isn’t real cheese; it’s cheese product engineered in a lab and loaded with preservatives and emulsifiers that render it supremely meltable, spreadable, or (shudder) spray-cannable. I liken it to fast food – it’s somewhat reminiscent of the food it purports to represent, but the amount of processing and adulterating it undergoes makes it closer to plastic than actual food we should be eating. This includes American cheese singles, Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, and most shredded cheeses.

Try to stick to grass-fed cheese, raw if possible.

Raw, Grass-Fed Cheese

The best kind of cheese, in my opinion, is raw cheese from grass-fed milk. Depending on your state or country’s stance on raw dairy products, it can be difficult to obtain, but the benefits – both in terms of nutrition and flavor – are worth the effort. Betacellulin, a potentially dangerous epidermal growth factor that has been linked to cancer, is present in most cheeses. Paleo critics often point to the betacellulin present in dairy as a major deterrent to its inclusion in a healthy diet (rightfully so), but they tend to focus on pasteurized, homogenized non-organic dairy from grain-fed cows – the most common type of dairy consumed in the country. Raw, grass-fed dairy, on the other hand, contains high levels of conjugated lineolic acid (CLA), which has been shown to have anti-cancer properties. Raw dairy supporters suggest that the higher levels of CLA present in raw, grass-fed cheese may act as a counterbalance to the negative effects of betacellulin also present.

Specialty grocery stores and cheese shops might carry a few types of raw cheese, but a surefire bet is to visit local farmer’s markets or family farms. Most states in the U.S. have strict regulations on raw dairy, and, since cheese requires a bit more time to develop, raw cheese can be hard to come by. As I understand it, quality cheeses in European countries are more likely to be raw and grass-fed (I hear the best Brie and Camembert in particular tend to be raw and grass-fed), so Blueprinters across the pond probably won’t have too much trouble. For those Stateside readers unable to find anything, check out Eat Wild for listings of local farms and cheesemakers.

Grass-Fed Cheese

Pasteurized grass-fed cheese isn’t chock full of the delicious bacteria common to raw dairy, but it does retain the higher levels of CLA. Grass-fed cheese, pasteurized or not, also contains the heat-resistant vitamin K2, which Weston Price asserted was the key (along with vitamin D3) to the excellent bone and dental health in the primitive (but supremely healthy) groups he studied. One recent Rotterdam study noted that consumption of Dutch foods rich in vitamin K2 – which include grass-fed cheeses like Gouda, Edam, and Leyden – had a protective effect against cardiovascular events.

Raw might be hard for many of you to find, but grass-fed shouldn’t be too difficult to come across. Stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s carry various kinds, such as the Kerrygold Irish cheeses (they also make good, affordable pastured butter). Whole Foods usually has a fairly knowledgeable cheese monger who can tell you a lot about each cheese they carry (and you can sample most everything, too). If I’m ever curious about a cheese’s origins (and the workers can’t answer), I do a quick Google search of the farm’s name, and I’m usually able to get the info I want.

Goat and Sheep

For people who absolutely cannot tolerate cheese from cows (grass-fed or otherwise), give goat or sheep’s cheese a chance. Goat tends to be more tart and crumbly, while sheep’s cheese varies in flavor as much as cow’s cheese. Again, ask for samples and experiment with different kinds (while trying to stick with cheese from pasture-raised animals).

Other Types

Of course, we can’t always find grass-fed cheese. Other, more conventional cheeses are fine in moderation. The occasional cheese plate isn’t going to kill you, but if you are going to eat a cheese that isn’t organic or range-produced or raw or Primal, make sure that you enjoy it. Make sure that your sensible vice is a worthy one. After all, the best cheeses – regardless of their animal’s dietary habits – are full-flavored, with a little bit going a long way (especially with a nice glass of cab).

I don’t eat cheese very often, but when I do, these are my favorite choices:

Bucheron – A tangy semi-aged, rinded goat cheese with a semi-firm center. As you get closer to the rind, the cheese gets softer, almost gooey. It’s like having two cheeses in one, and letting it mature heightens the difference between the two layers.

Gouda – A Dutch cow’s milk cheese, Gouda (especially aged Gouda) is full flavored. The longer it ages, the sharper and firmer it gets. I like my Goudas aged and find the young ones a bit too mild.

Cheddar – The classic. Aged cheddar, in my opinion, is the only way to have it: sharper, denser, and with less lactose.

Blue Castello – An intense blue-veined cheese, Blue Castello is creamy and overpowering. A decent-sized wedge will last me for a month; it’s that flavorful a cheese.

Feta – Feta can be made with goat, sheep, or cow’s milk, and I love it all. It crumbles well and goes great with salads.

Grok probably didn’t eat cheese. But like chocolate, wine and other sensible vices, it doesn’t mean we can’t fit this more civilized food into a Primal lifestyle if we just know the loopholes. I hope this was a helpful, general guide to cheese. I’d be interested to hear your views on this particular incarnation of the much-maligned dairy. Anyone else have favorites?

Further Reading:

The Original Sensible Vices

Sensible Vices: Round 2

Is All Chocolate Created Equal?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Good article, but it’s a bit confused on vitamin K2.

    K2 in cheese comes from the bacteria during the fermentation process and has nothing to do with the origin of the milk. Cheese from factory-farmed, grain-fed cows will have as much K2 as 100% pastured cows.

    And the various strains of cheese bacteria produce varying amounts of K2, from none to a lot. Cheddar cheese has little K2, whereas Emmenthaler and Jarlsberg have a lot. The Swiss-type cheeses with the bacteria-gas holes have by far the most K2

    Walter Pittman wrote on May 18th, 2009
  2. Hi Mark,

    I’ve been a regular visitor to your site for last 2 months or so! Awesome stuff and it all really makes sense. I’m glad you’re realistic about our modern lifestyle too and inlcude some loopholes! I’m almost totally Primal, bread and pasta and potatoes have long gone, as has almost all dairy (occassionally a dash of milk in coffee) the only thing I’m really stugglng with is my morning oats (wihtout milk) I’ve gone over to buckwheat and will try to wean off that too.

    anyway thanks for all your work and inspiration.

    grok on!

    mattigee wrote on November 8th, 2009
  3. What’s your opinion on Swiss? I love Alpine Lace and Baby Swiss, and I doomed if I eat 1-2 slices every other day?

    Maria wrote on December 9th, 2009
  4. I used to think I was lactose intolerant, but when I switched off of pasturized and homogenized milk, and started drinking raw mik I haven’t had any digestive problems whatsoever. It’s amazing because I was downing those lactase pills everyday with a glass of milk, but now I don’t need them at all. Likewise with raw cheese (mostly sharp white cheddar) too.

    SteveO wrote on December 28th, 2009
  5. Great post, Mark!

    One of my favourite snacks – or even desserts, really, is thinly-sliced Asiago cheese topped onto slices of Roma or Gala apples, with some olive oil drenched on top.

    Absolutely delicious!

    Anthony D. Paige wrote on January 28th, 2010
  6. Definitely one of my favorite snacks. Keeping it within reason after going primal. But lucky me, I am one of the few who have no problems with dairy.

    Ethan House wrote on February 4th, 2010
  7. As a Dutch Blueprinter I’m very relieved to hear I don’t have to give up my cheese necessarily! Among my favorites are: anything blue (Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Rochebaron), Feta, Mozzarella and the best of all: Huttenkase!

    Daphne wrote on June 3rd, 2010
  8. I had no idea that feta cheese was actually healthy. It’s in ridiculous abundance here in Greece. I can find it anywhere and in different forms. Soft, hard, salty or less savoury. I do love it in my eggs. Guess I’ll use it as my cheese of choice. We usually avoid it due to its high salt content. Opinions?

    Bill Pairaktaridis wrote on July 12th, 2010
    • What’s wrong with salt?

      rawmilkmike wrote on September 2nd, 2014
  9. So, if you are fermenting pastured raw dairy and cream long enough to get rid of the lactose, why not make it a large part of the diet? Is there something I’m missing here? It certainly has a lot more to offer than vegetables and butter is less fattening than olive oil.

    Ben wrote on December 27th, 2010
  10. Just a quick question about casein… I was under the impression that it is a cow’s milk protein only? Is it also present in goat and sheep’s milk (cheese)? I’ve been eating more of the goat cheese lately which takes less for more flavour!

    Sara wrote on January 17th, 2011
  11. Hi!
    I’m wondering what you think about halloumi? I use to eat pretty much of this, makes an excellent lunch (halloumi, bacon, mushrooms, onion, fry it..) and it’s so full of protein and practically no carbs. What’s your opinion to it?

    Hanna wrote on July 19th, 2011
  12. the cheese thats wrapped in plastic is cheese and its not a plastic product. when cheese is processed is gets inflected with all sorts of bacteria, ecoli for example. whats happens to this cheese? it gets reprocessed at extremely high temperatures so that all the bacteria is killed. thats it.


    51b3 wrote on August 30th, 2011
  13. I get my cheese from Neal’s Yard dairy in Covent Garden. You can smell the place a mile away, its a fantastic place for primal cheese aficionados. They make unpasteurised, raw, organic aged cheeses! Nom nom nom.

    Milla wrote on September 3rd, 2011
  14. As a food safety specialist I would greatly weigh the risks of unpasteurized cheese especially for pregnant women and people with certain immune diseases. Unfortunately even grass fed healthy animals carry bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes is found in the soil and therefore, is present in high numbers on the animal (as we farmers know, animals love mud!). E. coli O157:H7 is a normal bacteria found in the GI tract of cattle and other red meat animals. As widely publicized this summer, Listeria infections can cause death in immune-compromised individuals and causes miscarriage and stillbirth. These bacterias are found in most farm environments naturally as part of the flora normally found in the soil and around animals. While research has shown E. coli O157:H7 is less prevalent in grass fed, it is still present especially where calves are present (think dairy). Individuals should always consult a number of scientific and health care sources if they are considering adding raw dairy to their diet so they can weigh all the risks. Of course, unpasteurized is a great risk to pregnant women as bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes, that normally do not harm a healthy individual, can cause severe infections and death of the fetus.

    Missy wrote on January 4th, 2012
    • You sound very educated in this, however, you do know that a farmer who sells ‘raw’ dairy has to not only adhere to strict (extremely strict) methods to ensure sterility, but they also test every single batch before it is sold?

      There was also a study that was conducted back in the 60’s, comparing raw milk and pasteurized milk, sold side by side and the pasteurized milk had more incidences of some kind of ‘contagion’.

      The facts are, there is ALWAYS a risk, but just make sure that you take proper measures.

      SassaFrass88 wrote on January 11th, 2012
    • Missy, As a food safety specialist you profit from human suffering. Fresh food is vital especially for pregnant women and people with certain immune diseases. Cities have soil to. Humans have normal flora to.

      rawmilkmike wrote on September 2nd, 2014
  15. What about cream cheese? I know that it is processed and yeah, it comes in a shiny silver sleeve :)

    Dani wrote on January 11th, 2012
  16. Is there somewhere I can order grass fed cheese? Preferably cheddar. I live in las Vegas nv

    Angela wrote on February 17th, 2012

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