Several bacteria feed on lactose, the sugar found in milk, producing cheese for us as a byproduct of their feeding. This is why traditionally made cheese can be eaten by those who are lactose intolerant. Cheese consumption predates written history. This of course does not refer to processed cheese, frequently sold under the name “American cheese”. Technically speaking, processed cheese is not “real” cheese.
One reasonably reliable way of differentiating between traditional and processed cheese varieties is to look for holes. Cheese-making bacteria produce a gas, carbon dioxide, which leaves holes in cheese. There are exceptions though, and sometimes the holes are very small, giving the impression of no holes. Another good way is to look at the label and the price; usually processed cheese is labeled as such, and is cheaper than traditionally made cheese.
Cheese does not normally spoil; it ages. When vacuum-wrapped, cheese is essentially in “suspended animation”. After opening it, it is a good idea to store it in such a way as to allow it to “breathe”, or continue aging. Wax paper does a fine job at that. This property, extended aging, has made cheese a very useful source of nutrition for travelers in ancient times. It was reportedly consumed in large quantities by Roman soldiers.
Walther and colleagues (2008) provide a good review of the role of cheese in nutrition and health. The full reference is at the end of this post. They point out empirical evidence that cheese, particularly that produced with Lactobacillus helveticus (e.g., Gouda and Swiss cheese), contributes to lowering blood pressure, stimulates growth and development of lean body tissues (e.g., muscle), and has anti-carcinogenic properties.
The health-promoting effects of cheese were also reviewed by Higurashi and colleagues (2007), who hypothesized that those effects may be in part due to the intermediate positive effects of cheese on adiponectin and visceral body fat levels. They conducted a study with rats that supports those hypotheses.
In the study, they fed two groups of rats an isocaloric diet with 20 percent of fat, 20 percent of protein, and 60 percent of carbohydrate (in the form of sucrose). In one group, the treatment group, Gouda cheese (produced with Lactobacillus helveticus) was the main source of protein. In the other group, the control group, isolated casein was the main source of protein. The researchers were careful to avoid confounding variables; e.g., they adjusted the vitamin and mineral intake in the groups so as to match them.
The table below (click to enlarge) shows initial and final body weight, liver weight, and abdominal fat for both groups of rats. As you can see, the rats more than quadrupled in weight by the end of the 8-weight experiment! Abdominal fat was lower in the cheese group; one type of visceral fat, mesenteric, was significantly lower. Whole body weight-adjusted liver weight was higher in the cheese group. Liver weight increase is often associated with increased muscle mass. The rats in the cheese group were a little heavier on average, even though they had less abdominal fat.
The figure below shows adiponectin levels at the 4-week and 8-week marks. While adiponectin levels decreased in both groups, which was to be expected given the massive gain in weight (and probably body fat mass), only in the casein group the decrease in adiponectin was significant. In fact, the relatively small decrease in the cheese group is a bit surprising given the increase in weight observed.
If we could extrapolate these findings to humans, and this is a big “if”, one could argue that cheese has some significant health-promoting effects. There is one small problem with this study though. To ensure that the rats consumed the same number of calories, the rats in the casein group were fed slightly more sucrose. The difference was very small though; arguably not enough to explain the final outcomes.
This study is interesting because the main protein in cheese is actually casein, and also because casein powders are often favored by those wanting to put on muscle as part of a weight training program. This study suggests that the cheese-ripening process induced by Lactobacillus helveticus may yield compounds that are particularly health-promoting in three main ways – maintaining adiponectin levels; possibly increasing muscle mass; and reducing visceral fat gain, even in the presence of significant weight gain. In humans, reduced circulating adiponectin and increased visceral fat are strongly associated with the metabolic syndrome.
One caveat: if you think that eating cheese may help wipe out that stubborn abdominal fat, think again. This is a topic for another post. But, briefly, this study suggests that cheese consumption may help reduce visceral fat. Visceral fat, however, is generally fairly easy to mobilize (i.e., burn); much easier than the stubborn subcutaneous body fat that accumulates in the lower abdomen of middle-aged men and women. In middle-aged women, stubborn subcutaneous fat also accumulates in the hips and thighs.
Could eating Gouda cheese, together with other interventions (e.g., exercise), become a new weapon against the metabolic syndrome?
Higurashi, S., Kunieda, Y., Matsuyama, H., & Kawakami, H. (2007). Effect of cheese consumption on the accumulation of abdominal adipose and decrease in serum adiponectin levels in rats fed a calorie dense diet. International Dairy Journal, 17(10), 1224–1231.
Walther, B., Schmid, A., Sieber, R., & Wehrmüller, K. (2008). Cheese in nutrition and health. Dairy Science Technology, 88(4), 389-405.