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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 [7] 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 [8]. 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 [9] to have anti-cancer properties [10]. 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 [11] 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 [12] 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 [13]

Sensible Vices: Round 2 [14]

Is All Chocolate Created Equal? [15]