It’s one of the best things on the Christmas table. A sprawling cheese board to be worked away at, with a slab of gooey Brie, a blue-veined Stilton, something soft and goaty, all nestled between crackers and a bunch of token grapes.
Brits already eat an average of 30g of cheese a day but by the end of the festive season, it’s fair to assume most of us will have really overdone it. By January, we’ll be worrying about our cholesterol and switching to dairy-free alternatives, ushering out the last of the triple Crème de Chaource and swapping it for cashew ‘mozzarella’. But how much do we really need to worry about our cheese consumption? Festive excess aside, how far should we be attempting to curtail our daily addiction?
Fromagers in France have been protesting against the country’s scoring system, which ranks food products based on their nutritional value, billing cheeses high in salt and fat as being nutritionally weak. The European Commission is considering making the so-called Nutri-Score mandatory next year, much to the horror of producers of Roquefort, Rocamadour and Maroilles among others, who pointed out that giving their natural cheeses low nutrition ratings when ultra processed ingredients packed with preservatives could be given a much higher rating seemed “paradoxical”. Coca-Cola, for instance, is ranked B, while Saint-Nectaire, a squidgy cow’s milk cheese from the Auvergne, has a Nutri-Score of D.
Producers are calling for appellation cheeses (which adhere to strict production rules in order to protect their identities as heritage artisan food products) to be exempt from the scoring system, as wines are. Béatrice Roux, who produces the semi-hard cheeses Cantal and Salers, told France Info: “As cheesemakers, salt is our only conservative and cheese is fat by nature. If they put these bad scores on our appellation products, we’re all in deep trouble.”
So is your cheeseboard a health risk, or does it contain essential calcium and vitamins?
Beware the bad fats
There has been fervent debate in recent years about whether fat should be demonised to the extent that sugar has been. Dietary fat is essential – we need it to survive. But when it’s saturated (as it often is in high levels in animal products such as meat and cheese) it’s harder for the body to break down than the unsaturated fats that tend to be found in plants and fish.
Dr Stacey Lockyer, senior nutrition scientist, British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), says most types of full fat cheese are high in saturated fat “which we should all aim to reduce in our diets due to the link between high saturated fat consumption and raised blood cholesterol”.
She adds: “Some evidence has shown that milk and dairy foods may have neutral or protective effects on cardiovascular disease despite some products being higher in saturated fats. But on balance it is still a good idea to go for lower fat dairy foods most of the time as these provide the essential nutrients for less saturated fat and calories.”
Cut off the rinds to cut down the fat
It’s such a simple trick, but nutritionist Jane Clarke says slicing the rinds off a ripe Camembert can drastically lower the amount of fat you’re consuming. “If you cut the rind off a soft cheese like Brie, you can reduce its fat content by two-thirds,” says Clarke, founder of Nourish by Jane Clarke. “The majority of the fat is in the rind, so you can get the lovely runny bit from the middle.”
Unsurprisingly, all those gooey, mould-ripened cheeses with deliciously creamy centres (like Camembert) tend to be among the highest in saturated fat. But while Clarke agrees we shouldn’t have too much saturated fat, she feels products like high fat cheeses are demonised more than processed alternatives ought to be. “Too much of anything can lead to obesity. Cheese is naturally high in fat but it’s a great source of calcium for our bones,” she says.
“Cholesterol is a risk factor, it is not a cause of heart disease. If you’re looking at saturated animal fat… I think it’s much better to have a normal cheese and normal butter and then have something wholegrain alongside it or fruit or vegetables.”
Eat your cheese with something fibrous
You can help your body cushion its absorption of the fats in cheese by eating it with something high in fibre. Clarke suggests eating slices of cheese with a wholegrain, seedy cracker, a stick of celery or an apple: “Choose the cheese that you love and have a small amount of it and put it with something that helps your body deal with the fats and that side.”
The texture contrast also helps satiate you faster. “You get the delicious taste, and also by having the contrast of a crisp apple or a whole grain or a charcoal biscuit, your taste buds are satisfied by the smaller amount of cheese,” she adds.
“So if you do a small bit of a stronger cheese, a little bit of bread or a grape, you then get satiated more than you would do from a whole big chunk of processed cheese.”