Cheese: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Many think there’s no place for cheese in a heart-healthy diet, but there’s room for everything in moderation. Ana Blanco guides you through which cheeses are the best choices, and which to eat sparingly.

The Good

Quark

Quark cheese 2

A soft, fresh cheese, Quark has a creamy texture and mild tangy taste. It’s very popular in Germany and Eastern Europe. Like most cheeses, Quark is high in protein and contains minerals, including calcium, which is important for bones and teeth. Unlike most other cream cheeses, it’s virtually fat-free and has no added salt – so you can enjoy this one with a clear conscience.

Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese

This curd-based fresh cheese naturally contains less fat than other cheeses. Standard cottage cheese contains 6 per cent fat (3 per cent saturated fat); however, you can buy low fat versions which contain 2 per cent fat, of which 1 per cent is saturated fat. Its name is believed to have originated because the simple cheese was usually made in cottages from any milk left over after making butter.

It can be eaten by itself, with fruits and vegetables or as a jacket potato filling. It’s better to add your own flavourings to avoid the extra sugar and salt that can come with pre-mixed versions.

Ricotta

Ricotta cheese

Paoletta S. / Via Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the world’s oldest cheeses, dating back to the Bronze Age. Ricotta is an Italian curd cheese made from whey left over from the production of other cheese. Compared to most cheeses, ricotta is a healthier choice because it contains less salt and fat - 10 per cent fat, of which 6 per cent is saturated. It’s light and creamy with a slightly grainy texture and delicate flavour that can be used on its own or in sweet and savoury dishes.

You can use it instead of mozzarella or other cheeses to top your pizza, or crumble it into warm pasta for a delicious and healthy dish.

Reduced-fat Cheddar

Reduced fat Cheddar cheese

Cheddar is the most popular type of cheese in the UK, originating in the English village of Cheddar in Somerset around the late 12th century. These days Cheddar is made anywhere in the world. Cheddars vary in flavour depending on the length of ageing and their origin. The reduced-fat version isn’t low in fat or salt but contains 30 per cent less fat than the standard variety so it’s a good switch to make. On average it contains 22 per cent fat (14 per cent saturated) compared to standard Cheddar which contains about 35 per cent fat (22 per cent saturated).

Reduced-fat Cheddar cheese is a good swap for standard cheddar  on a cheeseboard or for using as a sandwich filling.

Mozzarella

Mozzarella cheese

Mozzarella is a semi-soft cheese traditionally made from Italian water buffalo milk by heating the curds in water or whey until they become elastic in texture. These days mozzarella is more often made from cow’s milk. It melts well and has a unique stretchiness, making it the classic pizza topping cheese. The kind of mozzarella you buy in a ball typically contains about 18 per cent fat and 12 per cent saturated fat, while ready-grated Mozzarella (which has a lower moisture content) contains around 21 per cent fat and 13 per cent saturated fat.

Go for a reduced-fat version instead - typically 10 per cent fat and 7 per cent saturated fat - which works just as well on pizza or in a salad with tomatoes and avocado. Most of us use less cheese when it’s grated rather than sliced, for example if you’re topping a pizza. Italian mozzarella can be tricky to grate, though, so if topping a pizza, try tearing the mozzarella into small pieces and scattering it thinly. Buffalo mozzarella is usually higher in fat, typically 24 per cent fat and 17 per cent saturates.

Feta

Feta cheese

Rebecca Siegel / Via Flickr.com

Feta is a rich and creamy soft cheese, made in Greece from sheep's milk, or from a mixture of sheep and goat's milk. It has a strong flavour, so a little goes a long way. Feta cheese is lower in fat than many cheeses (around 20 per cent, 14 per cent saturated) but it’s high in salt, so avoid adding additional salt when cooking with feta. Reduced-fat feta is a healthier choice (though still high in salt) and is quite widely available. Similar cheeses are sometimes sold as ‘salad cheese’, as it can’t be legally called feta if made from cow’s milk or made outside Greece.

Feta goes particularly well with summer vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines and courgettes – why not try it in a Greek-style salad with salad leaves and plenty of tomatoes and cucumber?

The Bad

Camembert

Camembert cheese

Jon Sullivan / Via Wikimedia Commons

Camembert is a soft, creamy, surface-ripened cow's milk cheese. It was first made in the late 18th century at Camembert, Normandy in northern France. It has a rich flavour which can range from buttery to pungent, depending on the type of Camembert and its age.

Camembert’s creamy texture may mean it looks like the bad boy of the cheese board, but it contains less fat than some other cheeses (at around 23 per cent, 14 per cent saturated). Its salt levels are high (1.5g or more per 100g), so go easy on how much you eat. Deep fried camembert comes with even more fat.

Brie

Brie cheese

Coyau / Via Wikimedia Commons 

Brie is a soft cows' milk cheese that is named after the province in France in which it originated. Similar in texture to Camembert, but with a higher fat content (29g per cent, 18 per cent saturated), Brie is produced from whole or semi-skimmed cow's milk. Although it is high in fat, Brie still has less fat than Cheddar or Stilton. Look out for ‘light’ versions of brie which will have less fat.

Danish Blue

Danish blue cheese

Stuart Webster / Via Flickr.com

Danish Blue was created by a Danish cheesemaker in the early 1900s. It has a moist body, dark blue veins and a salty taste with 29 per cent fat per 100g (19 per cent saturated). Although it has slightly less fat than Stilton, it’s even higher in salt (3g per 100g compared to 2.0g in stilton). If you enjoy Danish Blue, eat it sparingly on salads or as a dessert cheese with fruit.

Parmesan

Parmesan cheese

Parmesan is a very hard cheese which has been made from cow's milk in and around the Italian province of Parma for the past eight centuries or more. Parmesan cheese is high in salt (1.7g per 100g). It is also high in fat (30 per cent fat, 19 per cent saturated fat). 

However, the good thing about Parmesan is that its strong flavour means you don’t need to use much – it works particularly well as a substitute for cheddar if you are grating cheese for  pasta dishes that have a cheese topping, like lasagne, or you could try it in a normal cheese sauce – use a smaller amount than you would usually because of its strong flavour.

Stilton

Stilton cheese 

Keith Williamson / Via Flickr.com

Stilton is an English cheese named after the village of Stilton where the cheese was first made. Nowadays, it can only be made in the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire from regional cow’s milk. It’s produced in two varieties: blue and white. Blue Stilton is soft and crumbly, with a tangy flavour and blue veins. White Stilton has a milder flavour but the same texture, sold often with added flavourings such as dried fruit.

Stilton has a fat content of 35 per cent (23 per cent saturated) and nearly 2g of salt per 100g, making it a cheese to be eaten occasionally.

Mascarpone

Mascarpone cheese 

Mascarpone is an Italian cheese from the Lombardy region made from just two ingredients:  whole cream coagulated by the addition of citric or tartaric acid. Mascarpone is an ingredient of some famous Italian desserts like tiramisu. Mascarpone is not the best choice for your heart health as it’s one of the highest fat cheeses (44 per cent, of which 30 per cent is saturated). Sadly there isn’t a reduced-fat mascarpone, but try substituting half the mascarpone in recipes with low fat greek yoghurt for a healthier approach, or substitute it for Quark or a low-fat cream cheese instead.

…And the Ugly

Maggot cheese

Casu Marzu cheese

Shardan / Via Wikimedia Commons

Fancy some live maggots in your cheese? Yes, maggots. Casu Marzu is a traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese full of them. It’s created by leaving whole Pecorino cheeses outside with part of the rind removed to allow the eggs of the cheese fly to be laid in it. Essentially, the maggots are fermenting the cheese becoming very soft as it develops flavour. There’s also a similar cheese from Corsica called casgiu merzu.

The maggots can jump several inches so you might want to hold your hands above the cheese to stop them leaping into your eyes – or anywhere else. Or perhaps safety goggles would be an option? I think we’ll pass…

Stinking cheese

Stinking Bishop cheese 

Jon Sullivan / Via Wikimedia Commons 

There are smelly cheeses – and there are the types that can clear a room. Vieux Boulogne was judged the smelliest in the world by researchers from Cranfield University. It’s a cow’s milk cheese made in Pas de Calais, in northern France, washed with beer several times during the production process. The particularly pungent smell, which has been compared to ‘six-week-old earwax’ is created by the beer reacting with enzymes in the cheese. It even beat Epoisses de Bourgogne, a cheese so stinky that it is banned from the Parisian public transport system.

The French don’t have the monopoly on smelly cheeses, though – look out for Gloucestershire’s own Stinking Bishop, judged Britain’s smelliest cheese. It is washed in perry (made from the Stinking Bishop pear). It has appeared in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and in the Monty Python Live (Mostly) version of the cheese shop sketch.

Read our 7 cheese facts that will surprise you.

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