I love cheese. I love nibbling on it with a glass of wine, shredding fine slivers of it over salads, and even using it in large quantities to make comfort foods like creamy queso (a Mexican cheese dip) or scrumptious sauces.
Yet when I walk into most grocery stores, the vast majority of items on the cheese aisle hardly resemble traditional cheeses anymore. The choices can be daunting, particularly if you want to by the most nourishing cheese you can for you and your family. Besides taste, what’s the difference between that expensive, imported Irish cheese and the discount block of American or Colby Jack?
Sadly, the state of cheese in the U.S. is deeply disturbing. Whether it’s our acceptance of oddities like Velveeta, or the ever-pervasive “American” cheese — both of which can’t even legally be called “cheese” (even given our lax labeling standards!) and instead are labeled as “cheese products.”
Just take a look at the ingredients label on a package of Kraft American Cheese Singles:
MILK, WHEY, MILKFAT, MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SALT, CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, SODIUM CITRATE, WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SORBIC ACID AS A PRESERVATIVE, APOCAROTENAL (COLOR), ANNATTO (COLOR), ENZYMES, VITAMIN D3, CHEESE CULTURE.
But even if you’ve shied away from “cheese products,” you may be wondering what the healthiest cheese choices are.
Because cheese is made from milk, many of the principles you’d apply to choosing the healthiest milk can be used to pick the healthiest cheeses.
What to Buy
Basically, we’re trying to find REAL cheese — cheese that’s as traditional and natural as possible, the kind of cheese your ancestors have been eating for thousands of years.
BEST CHOICE: Raw cheeses from grass-fed cows producing milk high in A2 beta casein and relatively low in A1 beta casein — that means milk from Jerseys, Guernseys, and other traditional cattle breeds rather than newer Holsteins. Raw goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and yak’s milk only contains A2 beta casein and arguably makes better cheeses than cow’s milk anyway.
Finding these in your grocery store can be tough, but it is possible to find them in many of the “deli” sections. In other words, they won’t be on the same aisle with sliced sandwich cheeses and bagged pre-shredded cheese (which contains wood pulp!). Imported European cheeses are a great place to start. Europeans don’t treat their dairy cows with growth hormones, and they also know that the best tasting cheeses are the ones coming from cows eating lush green grass. You can tell if a cheese is made with raw milk by reading the ingredients label.
Unfortunately, U.S. import laws don’t allow us to import many of the softer or mildly aged raw cheeses, instead requiring that raw cheese be aged for at least 60 days before entering our country. So, you won’t find raw chevre, feta, blue cheese, or cream cheese varieties at your grocery store. For those, you’ll need to go to your farmer’s market, a local artisan cheese shop, or purchase them online.
What about cost? These are mightily expensive cheeses compared to what I’m used to buying!
The good news is that these cheeses are packed full of flavor. If you’re at all like my family, you’ll discover that you simply need less cheese when you’re preparing foods with these traditional cheeses. You wouldn’t want more than a few slivers on your salad, otherwise your meal would simply be overpowered by the taste of cheese.
For online sources of quality cheese from grass-fed cows, be sure to check out the listings on my Resources Page.
SECOND: Cheeses from the milk of grass-fed cows, goats, sheep, or yak that aren’t fed antibiotics or growth hormones. This can be harder to discern, but easier to find. What do I mean? Well, most cheese makers don’t advertise what they feed their dairy cows on their labels (some do, but most don’t). It’s up to you to be a detective and start calling companies to find out how they raise their cows and what they’re fed.
As before, most European cheese varieties are a good bet, as are most Amish cheeses. Again, these cheeses will likely only be available in the “deli” section of your grocery store, or at local farmer’s markets or artisan cheese shops. The good news is that of the cheeses in the “deli” section of your grocery store, these are probably far more prevalent than the raw milk cheeses.
THIRD: Cheeses from the milk of cows, goats, sheep, or yak that aren’t fed antibiotics or growth hormones. This will usually be right on the label, as this is a MAJOR selling point here in the U.S. these days. I’m not familiar with every brand out there, but I do know that Tillamook cheeses are antibiotic & growth hormone free.
If you choose to go with this third option, beware of just how much you consume. If the animal’s not eating a grass-based diet, the profile of nutrients & fats in the milk used to produce the cheese will be unnaturally high in Omega 6 fatty acids and fairly devoid of good fat soluable vitamins like Vitamin D.
What are YOUR favorite places to find REAL cheese?
We’re all in this together. Perhaps you’ve made a discovery about a source for local raw-milk grass-fed cheese? Or maybe you’ve discovered that a particular national brand uses only milk from grass-fed cows. Or maybe you’ve found a good buying club that lets you get REAL cheese at prices that rival supermarket cheese? Your knowledge could help somebody out! Why not leave a comment letting us know what’s available in your area?
This post is part of Cheeseslave’s Real Food Wednesday carnival. Be sure to check it out!