Having previously ranked dairy products and types of milk by how healthy they are, we’re now ranking categories of cheese (note, not specific brands—that would take several thousand years) because frankly, there’s nothing we’re not happy to completely ruin for ourselves.
But before we dive into this delicious list, a friendly warning from Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and my go-to source for all nutritional queries:
“The casein (animal protein) found in dairy products, including cheese, is a possible tumor promoter. While I wouldn’t recommend eating cheese, I’m also realistic and understand that people want their cheese. So companies are developing non-dairy alternatives, which may in fact be ‘healthier’ than all the ones listed below.”
On a more positive note, according to a study performed by the Academy of General Dentistry, cheese increases saliva production and adheres to tooth enamel to protect the teeth from cavities caused by acid (which can be found in the likes of coffee, wine and soda). So you might be dead, but boy will the teeth in your skull look sparkly!
Now let’s rank us some cheese categories…
1. Moose-Milk Cheese: Moose-milk cheese is one of the most expensive cheeses in the world, costing $300 per pound, and it’s produced exclusively at the Elk House in Bjurholm, Sweden. Hunnes speculates that moose-milk cheese must also be one of the healthiest varieties: “While I’ve never heard of moose-milk cheese before now, I imagine that it would have to be number one due to the fact that moose are truly wild animals, eating nothing but wild plants all day that contain healthy doses of omega-3 fatty acids [which decrease inflammation and control blood pressure] and conjugated linoleic acids [which fight cancer, inhibit weight gain and help build muscle],” she explains. “It’s probably lower in saturated fat [which increase your risk of heart disease and stroke by raising cholesterol] than cow-milk cheese, and it’s possibly lower in casein.”
2. Goat-Milk Cheese and Sheep-Milk Cheese (tied): “Both of these are high in saturated fat; however, they have a better fatty-acid profile than cow-milk cheese (they contain more omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids),” Hunnes says. “They’re also both significantly lower in casein than cow-milk cheese.”
3. Soft Cheese and Fresh Cheese (tied): Fresh cheeses (like queso blanco or ricotta) are made by simply leaving milk out and allowing it to curdle naturally, then placing the curdled milk into a small basket with holes—this allows the whey (the watery part of the milk that remains after the formation of curds) to drain out and gives the cheese its final, super-soft form. Firmer cheeses, meanwhile, are typically achieved by mechanically pressing curdled milk to extract as much whey as possible, then in some cases, the interior is cooked or semi-cooked to intensify draining and provide an even more dry texture. “Cheeses like mozzarella [which is a soft cheese], especially if they’re fresh, contain less casein than hard cheeses, which are almost exclusively casein,” Hunnes explains. “Therefore, these are probably going to be a healthier choice than hard cheeses.”
4. Semi-Soft Cheese: Gouda and gruyère can both be semi-soft cheeses, but this category includes a wide range of cheeses that vary tremendously depending on the production process. “I’d say that these are after soft cheeses, primarily because of their higher casein ratio, higher saturated fat ratio and low moisture content,” Hunnes says.
5. Blue-Veined Cheese: “These likely contain more healthy bacteria (almost akin to probiotics) than a straight-up firm cheese, like parmesan,” Hunnes explains. “However, if you’re immune-compromised, you’d want to avoid these.” They’re produced by incorporating a culture (penicillium glaucum roqueforti or penicillium candidum) into the curdled milk to promote the development of mould in the interior.
6. Fruity Cheese: An example of fruity cheese would be blueberry stilton, which quite literally contains blueberry chunks. “The fruit displaces some of the casein in addition to providing some antioxidants and fiber—though, not much,” Hunnes says.
7. Firm Cheese and Brined Cheese (tied): Brined cheeses (like feta) are also sometimes referred to as pickled cheeses, since they’re matured in an airtight or semi-permeable container filled with brine solution. As for firm cheeses, like the ubiquitous cheddar, “These tend to be closely linked, because they’re made similarly,” Hunnes explains. “The nice thing about them is that you tend to not need much, since they’re packed with a lot of flavor, but they’re still high in casein, saturated fat and salt, which we can all use less of.”
8. Smoked Cheese: “Smoked cheeses might contain nitrates, so I tend to not recommend them, as nitrites and nitrates may be carcinogenic,” says Hunnes.
9. Processed Cheese: “I’m not even sure if this is ‘real’ cheese,” Hunnes emphasizes. “I’d stay away from this: It has all of the bad, and none of the good.”
10. Human Cheese: Yes, this is a real thing—and also yes, I’m currently vomiting all over my keyboard. In 2013, biologist Christina Agapakis teamed up with Sissel Tolaas, an installation artist most widely known for her work with odors, to craft 11 cheeses using the bacteria found in armpits, mouths, toes and belly buttons. “That’s so off-putting,” Hunnes says. “Would anyone actually eat that? Uh, I’d have to put that at the bottom of the list, mainly because I’d be afraid that staph bacteria [which causes staph infections] could be in the mix, since it’s found on our skin.”
With our list coming to a close, here’s one more friendly warning from Hunnes: “Please also note that, from an animal-welfare perspective and an environmental perspective, cheese is detrimental. Living conditions of milk-giving animals is never good, and because cheese has so much water removed, it requires a LOT of milk to produce even a pound (depending on the type),” she explains. “I’ll never pass up an opportunity to educate more people about this.”
For perspective: If one gallon of milk requires 880 gallons of water, and, on average, 1.2 gallons of milk to make one pound of cheese, that adds up to a whole lot of water down the drain for that slice of cheese on your burger.
And now I feel like a total jerk for eating cheese. Great.