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Cultured dairy products can contribute to a healthy eating pattern.

Cultured dairy products can contribute to a healthy eating pattern.

For thousands of years, people have used fermentation to preserve perishable food. Cheese is an ancient food with origins that predate recorded history. Today it is one of the most popular fermented dairy products and is produced in countries throughout the world. There are various processes for making cheese, but the basic method entails culturing milk for various lengths of time.

Cheese is a versatile food that can be eaten by itself or added to other dishes. It is convenient and portable. There are more than 2,000 varieties of soft and hard cheeses. Soft cheeses include mozzarella, brie, feta and ricotta. Hard cheeses have a lower moisture content than soft cheeses due to an extended aging process. They are naturally lower in lactose and are often eaten and enjoyed by people with lactose intolerance. Popular hard cheeses include cheddar, parmesan, gouda and colby. Cheeses are available in various flavors, forms (chunks, slices, cubes, shredded, grated, crumbled, sticks, spreads) and packages to meet consumers' needs.

Health Benefits of Cheese 

Cheese contains nutrients such as protein and calcium. The high-quality protein in cheese provides the body with essential building blocks for strong muscles. Cheese is an important source of calcium, one of the nutrients that is lacking in the American diet. According to government statistics, dietary intake for both men and women falls short of recommendations, but especially for women. Groups of most concern include boys ages 9–13, girls ages 9–18, women over 51 years and men over 70 years. 

Other important nutrients found in cheese are phosphorus, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin B12. These nutrients are essential for bone health, wound healing, eye and skin health and the production of red blood cells. 

Cheese and Saturated Fat

For more than 30 years, saturated fat—found in meats, eggs, cheese, butter, whole milk, lard and some oils—was considered a primary cause of heart disease. Research is finding the links between dairy foods and health outcomes may be different than other foods that contain saturated fat. These newer studies challenge the assumption that all saturated fat impacts the body in the same way. 

Different food sources of fat can contribute additional nutrients and bioactive compounds to the diet that may impact disease risk. A healthy eating pattern that focuses on nutrient-dense foods from all of the food groups will contribute a variety of dietary fats essential to health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that individuals ages 9 and older consume at least three servings of milk, cheese or yogurt each day; children ages 4–8 years need 2½ cups per day. One serving of cheese is 1½ ounces of hard cheese, 1/3 cup of grated cheese or 2 ounces of processed cheese.

Calcium. National Institutes of Health website. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/. Updated October 16, 2019. Accessed November 13, 2019.

de Oliveira Otto MC, Nettleton JA, Lemaitre RN, et al. Biomarkers of dairy fatty acids and risk of cardiovascular disease in the multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. J Am Heart Assoc. 2013;2:e000092. doi:10.1161/JAHA.113.000092 

Jacobs DR, Tapsell LC. Food synergy: the key to a healthy diet. Proc Nutr Soc. 2013;72(2):200-206. doi:10.1017/S0029665112003011

US Department of Health and Human Services; US Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2015. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed November 13, 2019.