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. is it ok to grate cheese on your omlette everyday? what if you are on a weight loss program?

    Srinivas Kari wrote on October 4th, 2012
    • Why were you on a weight loss program? Did it work?

      rawmilkmike wrote on September 2nd, 2014
  2. one of the best articles i’ve read in regards to diet, couldn’t’ve articulated my feelings on cheese much more accurately. ditto for the dairy/milk article.



    Chris wrote on October 5th, 2012
  3. I love cheese. I do prefer the more natural options though. I was excited when I found some from grass-fed cows. Will I ever give up cheese? Never.

    The only dairy I get is heavy cream for my coffee. Along with all the other changes I’ve made with my diet, I’m still doing wayyyy better than my previous diet.

    Nathan wrote on November 5th, 2012
  4. Personally I consider “Gouda” cheese, something for tourists. Nasty stuff you buy in the supermarkets or at an airport shop. I prefer organic cheese from Netherlands, especially ‘farm made’ (boerenkaas). That should be raw milk enough and tastes great.

    Finding (proven) grass fed beef and -eggs, that is hard over here in the Netherlands. Plenty of meadows over here, but that doesn’t mean the livestock is eating it…

    Sebastian wrote on December 10th, 2012
    • Side note–saw in an article awhile back about poperly sizing bicycles to the rider’s body that mentioned that now the Dutch are on average the tallest people in the world; the AVERAGE Dutch man is 6 feet tall. Genetics? All that yummy dairy?? Hard to say.

      shrimp4me wrote on October 20th, 2013
  5. I just did a little happy dance. I love dairy and it just made me sad that paleo, which works SO well for me, doesn’t include dairy. I’m going straight out and buying some full fat cream and raw cheese. Yay!

    Sarah wrote on January 8th, 2013
  6. Well I live in Greece and any cheese we get from the supermarket is either goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese, and usually from a farm that I could actually visit.. I’ve been paleo for more that a year and this kind of cheese has been my staple..Just wanted to say that if you do everything right, some cheese wont hurt you!!

    Theodora wrote on January 24th, 2013
  7. goat’s milk can be made into just about any cheese that is traditionally made from cow’s milk. We use the milk from our goat to make camembert that is wonderfully creamy, smooth with a hint of tart. I also blend our goat cheese with a varieyt of herbs and vinegars before serving and I also use plain goat cheese in place of ricotta and cream cheese in recipes (cheese cake – yum)

    Pam wrote on March 6th, 2013
  8. My local Wegmans has a good selection of grass fed cheese and grass fed beef only problem is the high prices :(

    Jaybee86 wrote on March 11th, 2013
  9. quick question, is grass fed cheese the same a grass fed cheddar cheese?

    Tom wrote on August 13th, 2013
    • Cheddar is just one type of cheese– so not all grass fed cheese is grass fed cheddar, but grass fed cheddar is a grass fed cheese.

      Paleo-curious wrote on August 13th, 2013
      • Thanks for clearing that up for me!

        tom wrote on August 15th, 2013
  10. The Short Answer: NO! I disagree with your short answer being YES. I studied Nutrition in college and cheese has very little real nutritional value also there is research that indicates the fat content in cheese can actually inhibit the absorption of the calcium. Even though some FAT is NECESSARY for nutrient absorption. Besides this is not the natural healthy fats found in unprocessed foods that the human body really needs.

    David S wrote on October 22nd, 2013
    • How is fat from a natural food like cheese not a “natural healthy” fat? Studying nutrition in college is no shortcut for actual knowledge of nutrition (they’re still teaching the lipid hypothesis).

      Marissa wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  11. Why every time there is a question about dairy, we must bring the lactose intolerance subject.
    -If you have a lactose intolerance you should NOT consume dairy. Period. It’s not a question whether dairy is good or not, you just have lactose intolerance.

    Now the question is:
    As far as the people who are NOT lactose intolerant, should they consume dairy or not ?

    Peter wrote on December 2nd, 2013
  12. What was the final verdict on romano and parmesan cheese?

    Margaret wrote on January 23rd, 2014
  13. Milk was the culprit for my migraines, lower back pain and painful spasms/cramps around groin area. And I would wake up next morning with a soar throat if I drank a cold glass of milk the night before.

    I drank a glass of milk daily before bed everyday, but woke up next morning with above issues throughout the day. Never thought milk was the culprit.

    Haven’t drank milk (or any dairy products) in a year so no more pains. I put creamer in my coffee and had a headache, which lead me to believe my allergies to Sodium Caseinate as well.

    AK wrote on March 27th, 2014
    • Raw milk is a super-food. Pasteurized dairy is a toxic energy supplement.

      rawmilkmike wrote on September 2nd, 2014

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!