Cheese Nutrition

Almost everyone loves some type of cheese, whether it’s an aged, robust, hard cheese such as Romano or a crumbly, pungent cheese like Gorgonzola. One fact is for sure: with more than one-third of all milk produced each year being used to manufacture over 300 varieties of cheese sold in the United States, cheese has become a staple food in the American cuisine.

Cheese is primarily made from cow, goat, or sheep’s milk and therefore has a nutritional profile similar to milk. Cheese is also a good source of nutrients because it contains calcium, protein, and phosphorus, but it also has considerably more fat per serving than milk.

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Cheese serving size

The serving size of cheese varies with the variety and type of the cheese. Shredded cheese has a serving portion of one-fourth cup; grated cheese may list a serving size as small as 2 teaspoons. Block cheese or cheese that is not sliced indicates a serving portion of one ounce. The serving size of sliced cheese varies according to the size of the slice. Some come in skinny or slim slices (usually three slices per serving) or one ordinary-sized slice. Cheeses that come sliced may look lower in calories, saturated fat, and sodium because their labels often list a smaller portion size than block cheese. Check the Nutrition Facts panel to determine the serving portion of the cheese you select.

Nutrients in cheese

Cheese packs a lot of calories and fat in a small serving size. The calorie content of cheese varies according to the type and the fat content of the cheese. One ounce of cheddar cheese contains about 115 calories, while one ounce of low-fat cheddar cheese contains about 50 calories.

People with diabetes are advised to limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories (those with elevated LDL cholesterol levels may be advised to limit saturated fat to less than 7 percent of calories) and avoid trans fat (cheese does not contain trans fat). For an individual on a 1500-calorie meal plan, 10 percent of the calories from saturated fat would be less than less than 17 grams daily. For the individual limiting his or her saturated fat to less than 7 percent of total calories, the amount would be less than 12 grams of saturated fat per day.

Over two-thirds of the fat in milk is saturated fat. Therefore, cheese made from full-fat or whole milk contains significant amounts of saturated fat. One ounce of a full fat cheese contains 5–6 grams of saturated fat, supplying over 30 percent of a day’s worth of saturated fat. Therefore, it becomes important to find strategies to select lower fat cheeses, consume cheese less frequently and limit portion sizes to one-ounce portions or less.

Cheese Nutrients
Cheese Nutrition Facts (click to expand)

Positive choices

Choose cheeses that do not have more than three grams of saturated fat per serving, about half of what full-fat cheese contains. Choose cheese labeled “lite,” “2 percent milk,” “50 percent less fat,” “reduced fat” or “part-skim.” Reduced fat or 2 percent cheese is made from milk that contains 2 percent milk fat. Reduced-fat cheese contains at least 25 percent less fat than regular full-fat cheese. Low-fat cheese is made from milk with 1 percent milk fat and must contain less than three grams of fat per serving.

Cheese is a good source of protein, calcium, and phosphorus. A one-ounce serving of most cheeses provides seven to eight grams of protein. Cheese is also a good source of calcium and phosphorus. Calcium is important to maintain bone mass and decrease risk of osteoporosis, and phosphorus helps strengthen bones and generate energy in cells. One ounce of cheese contains 15–20 percent of the daily recommended intake for calcium or about 270 milligrams and up to 15 percent of the daily recommended intake for phosphorus.

The sodium connection

Salt is a standard ingredient in cheese-making, but it may also be added at varying amounts, depending on the variety. Natural cheese contains approximately 100–300 milligrams of sodium per ounce, with some varieties such as Roquefort containing over 500 milligrams per ounce. Processed cheese typically contains a high sodium content with 300–500 milligrams per ounce. Low sodium cheese must contain less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving. Reduced-sodium cheese must contain 25 percent less sodium per serving than regular cheese. Select cheeses with less than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Want to learn more about incorporating cheese into your meal plan? Read “Stocking Your Healthful Fridge (Part 4),” “Full-Fat or Low-Fat Dairy: Which Is Best?” and “Going to the Grocery Store With Diabetes: The Dairy Aisle — Yogurt and Cheese,” then try our Easy Macaroni and Cheese or Goat Cheese Crostinis with Sweet Onion Jam.