Every so often, Gordon Edgar has The Nightmare. He’s standing inside a cooler stacked to the ceiling with every cheese he could ever want: raw-milk cheeses made in tiny batches on hilly farmsteads; hard cheeses aged for just the right number of months; blue cheeses so rich and marbled there’s practically no white in them at all.
And it’s all rotting before his eyes.
Mites are turning the Gruyère into dust. Bries are liquefying and dripping onto the floor. And still more cheeses keep arriving — delivery drivers are wheeling in tottering stacks.
“In The Nightmare, I know it’s my fault,” Edgar says. “I am the cheesemonger, and I have failed the cheese.”
That’s what it’s like to have part of your heart and most of your soul made out of a nice Italian taleggio and a West Coast Teleme.
Edgar is the author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge and cheese buyer at Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco’s largest food co-op. He has devoted years making sure he doesn’t fail the cheese in real life.
To do that, he spends a great deal of time telling people why they don’t have to shun those tasty little wedges and great, fat wheels.
Cheese has inspired vigorous debate over the past decade or so. Some arguing against it decry the environmental impact of large-scale milk production, others promote the health benefits of a purely plant-based lifestyle, and still more argue that cheese is simply too allergenic, pro-inflammatory, or highly caloric to be included in any healthy diet.
Yet Edgar and many other experts believe that understanding the basics of quality cheesemaking allows us to become more selective about the cheese we choose — making it entirely possible to eat this beloved food in good health.
To that end, we asked experts to answer 10 common questions and provide a brief education in cheese.
1. What is cheese, exactly?
Like many fermented and preserved foods, the first cheeses were made to extend the life of a highly perishable staple — in this case, milk. Before refrigeration, such tricks were critical.
“This was just a way to make milk more stable, and also more digestible,” says Sandor Ellix Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation. “Cheesemaking took off when people realized that different tactics resulted in different flavors.”
All cheese is made with four basic ingredients: milk, some kind of starter culture, salt, and rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the milk to create a curd. Traditional rennet comes from the stomach of a calf, lamb, or goat, but there are also vegetarian rennets made from plants or molds. (If you’re a strict vegetarian, look for kosher cheeses; these dietary laws forbid the mixing of milk and meat.)
Cheesemaking removes much of the milk’s water content — known as whey. If you take out only a small amount of whey, you get a softer cheese with a shorter lifespan. Take out nearly all the whey and you’ve got those rock-hard wheels of cheese that last longer than your first high-school romance.
Although some cheesemakers add herbs, spices, and other ingredients, the majority of cheeses typically just include the four basic ingredients, with huge variations in fermentation strategies.
“I love, love, love cheese, and I eat it probably every day,” says Katz. “There is an incredible range and diversity in terms of flavor and texture and how an artisan cheesemaker approaches the craft. A Parmesan is so different from a cheddar, and both are nothing like a Camembert. It’s a new adventure with every kind.”
2. Why has cheese gotten such a bad health rap?
First, cheese is calorically dense, and Americans tend to eat it like a main dish rather than a condiment, so it’s often associated with weight gain.
Second, cheese can provoke digestive discomfort. Though we’re born producing lactase, an enzyme in our small intestines that helps break down the lactose in milk, many of us lose our capacity to digest dairy as we age. As we start consuming other foods, lactase production gradually declines.
Though this doesn’t prevent some of us from being able to digest dairy, others can become lactose intolerant. (Ethnicity plays a role here, too: Those of African, Asian, Hispanic, or Native American heritage are more likely to develop lactose intolerance over time.)
When the body lacks the necessary enzyme, dairy can ferment in the large intestine, causing gas, bloating, and other uncomfortable symptoms.
Still, certain cheeses contain less lactose, and sometimes lactose-intolerant people can tolerate small amounts. (See “Can people who are dairy intolerant eat cheese?” below.)
3. Does it matter if the animals are grassfed and raised organically?
Because milk is the key ingredient in cheese, what the animals graze on is a key factor in cheese quality. As food writer Michael Pollan says, “You are what what you eat eats.”
There is a big difference in quality between cheeses made with milk from pasture-raised, grassfed animals and cheeses produced by confined (or zero-grazed) animals raised on grains, Katz says. “Ruminants have incredible digestive systems that turn grasses and leaves into this nutrient-rich dairy product, but if they’re raised in confinement and fed grains, what does that do to the health of the animals?”
The short answer: nothing good. Ruminants’ digestive systems are not built to handle grains (which are too carbohydrate-dense), and grain feeding can sometimes lead to a condition called acidosis, or grain poisoning, which can be fatal.
Meanwhile, pasture-raised animals produce higher-quality milk, with up to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (or CLA), a fat that supports cardiac and brain health in humans.
Use of the term “grassfed,” however, is currently on the honor system. In 2016 the U.S. Department of Agriculture dropped its official definition of that term and no longer verifies it. Without a standard, legally enforced definition, it’s open to many interpretations. A producer could label as “grassfed” a cheese that comes from animals who grazed for one day.
The term “organic,” meanwhile, is regulated by the FDA: It indicates the animal has not been given growth hormones and has some access to pasture — specifically, during the grazing season, or at least 120 days of the year. Up to 70 percent of their nutrition may still come from grains.
A little research can usually fill in the blanks about where the milk in your cheese originated. “Talk to your cheesemonger, or look at the website of the cheesemaker,” Edgar says.
He recommends opting for farmstead cheese when possible; artisan cheesemakers might buy their milk from various sources, but farmstead cheesemakers create their wares only from animals they raise themselves.
4. Can people who are dairy intolerant eat cheese?
For those with an anaphylactic milk allergy, no amount of cheese is a good idea. There’s a bit more flexibility when it comes to an intolerance, though.
There are two types of sensitivities at play with dairy intolerance: one to lactose, the sugar in milk; the other to casein, or milk protein. The type of trigger affects what cheeses you can safely eat.
Lactose intolerance is more common, especially for particular ethnicities. It also frequently accompanies gut disorders like celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).
Yet, even if a lactose-intolerant person can’t sip some milk without bloating and pain, she can probably eat a variety of cheeses — so long as they’ve been aged at least six months. This rules out younger cheeses (think commercial Monterey jack and Colby, which are usually aged less than three months), but leaves a host of others.
As cheese ages, the fermenting bacteria that break down the milk’s protein convert lactose into lactic acid. In cheeses aged for longer time periods, like nine months to a year or more (think sharp cheddar, Gruyère, Manchego, Parmesan, and others) little, if any, lactose remains.
“If you’re eating an aged cheese and have a digestive issue, it’s likely not the lactose that’s the problem — it’s probably something else you’re sensitive to,” says Liz Thorpe, author of The Book of Cheese.
That brings us to casein, a milk protein that, for some, also causes digestive distress signals, as well as brain fog and fatigue. This sensitivity tends to pose a bigger problem than lactose intolerance for those who struggle with dairy, according to functional and integrative coach Cindi Lockhart, RDN, LD, IFNCP.
Most cow’s milk in the United States features A1 beta-casein, and our gastrointestinal system may not be able to properly break it down, she explains. These incompletely digested proteins can make their way into the bloodstream and eventually the brain, where they can lead to fogginess, fatigue, and cravings for more dairy.
If you notice these symptoms and they disappear when you avoid dairy, you may have a casein sensitivity.
But you still might be able to enjoy some goat and sheep cheese. (For more on dairy proteins, see “Is A2 Milk Better for You?“)
5. What about goat and sheep cheeses?
These cheeses are often tolerable for people with lactose and casein intolerances.
Goat and sheep milk contain only A2 beta-casein, a protein that is less inflammatory than A1; as a result, even people with casein intolerance can often enjoy some goat or sheep cheese.
You may have to go to a natural grocery, farmers’ market, or cheese shop to find them, but many varieties of cheese — cheddar, Gouda, blue, Brie, and more — are also made with goat and sheep milk.
6. Is cheese a good protein source?
Cheese does contain protein, but it’s best not to think of it as a primary source because it’s a fairly common inflammatory trigger, says Lockhart. People sometimes lean on cheese because of its convenience, but traditionally cheese is a delicacy, not a main course.
Still, a little good cheese goes a long way, and it can be a nice protein counterpoint to, say, a piece of fruit. And cheese can add more substance to a salad of leafy greens.
“Hard cheeses with the lowest moisture content will have the highest protein content,” says registered dietitian Maya Feller, RD, CDN. Parmesan is one of the most protein-dense at 10 grams per ounce; on the other end of the spectrum, ricotta has 3 grams. Cheese also provides calcium and a decent supply of vitamins A and B12.
7. Why do people in Europe often eat cheese after the main course, instead of before?
Tradition can be a tricky thing to unravel. One theory explaining why Europeans favor a cheese plate late in a meal is that, not too long ago, cheeses were all made from unpasteurized milk, and those with short aging times likely retained more diverse beneficial bacteria, Thorpe says. So, after a meal, people ate cheese to employ its helpful microorganisms to break down the rest of the meal.
You can still find raw-milk options with those digestive benefits (more on that below), but what drives that particular cheese habit now is less about digestion and more about satiation, she adds.
“My European colleagues are mystified as to why we would eat cheese before a meal,” Thorpe says. “They say it’s just too filling, because it’s dense and fatty. Your appetite would be sated before you even get to the main course. By eating the cheese after, you can enjoy the flavors in a similar way to dessert.”
8. Is raw-milk cheese safe?
Eating raw-milk cheese is probably not any more dangerous than eating carpaccio or sushi, or anything else that could harbor unhelpful parasites. The FDA mandated pasteurization of all milk products in 1987, but a dozen states have since passed rules allowing retail sales of raw milk, and another dozen say it’s OK if you purchase it directly from the originating farm.
Despite the caution over raw milk in some places, Edgar doesn’t believe there’s any reason for most people to avoid raw-milk cheese because of microbial concerns. Advocates believe the “living” aspect of raw milk makes it more digestible, not more dangerous.
“Traditional milk is alive, teeming with enzymes and microorganisms that evolved right along with [us], usually in the belly,” notes Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why.
In any case, cheese is different from milk, Edgar explains, because of the fermentation factor. Raw-milk cheese is available even in states with raw-milk bans, as long as the cheese is aged at least 60 days. This means you won’t usually find a raw-milk Brie (whose creaminess results from minimal aging), but other soft options are available, such as raclette or bûcheron.
All sorts of cheeses — hard and soft; cow, goat, and sheep — are made from raw milk.
Often, raw-milk cheese comes from small-scale farmstead makers, Edgar says.
9. Are certain cheeses better avoided?
Edgar recommends selecting high-quality cheeses from small producers and steering clear of processed, bright-orange cheese that is likely packed with emulsifiers, preservatives, and other additives. Some grated or shredded Parmesan may even contain cellulose, which is made from wood pulp.
While mass-produced cheese is often less expensive, the flavor and quality are likely to leave you unsatisfied. Instead, consider eating less cheese and spending more for a little bit of the good stuff.
10. How do I choose a good cheese?
You’re standing at the cheese counter with a selection stretching beyond your peripheral vision. Despite having narrowed it down to one type of cheese, you are still faced with myriad options. How do you choose?
“Even people who know a lot about cheese have that moment,” says Thorpe. “Specialty cheeses just keep expanding, and it can be confusing and overwhelming. My advice would be to take a chance. Go out of your comfort zone a little. Start with one unfamiliar option and see how you like it.”
When you hit something you love — say you discover you adore goat cheese — start expanding from there. Try different producers’ offerings; sample hard and soft varieties, herbed and otherwise.
Proceed as you would with any rich treat: Be selective, go for the small-scale and artisan makers, and consider paying more. And really enjoy each bite. The more you focus on flavor and quality, the less cheese you’ll need and the more joy it can bring into your eating repertoire.