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Why is cheese one of your 10 Most Controversial WHFoods?

What makes cheese controversial is not any particular aspect of this food—for example, whether it is grass-fed or non grass-fed, organic or non-organic, or where it is made from whole, reduced fat, or nonfat milk. It's the nature of the food itself.

Four of the most controversial aspects of cheese are (1) a disproportional number of adverse reactions to cheese in comparison to other commonly eaten foods; (2) lack of regulatory standards needed to assure a natural lifestyle for dairy cows whose milk is needed to produce cheese; (3) potential contribution of large-scale cheese production to excess greenhouse gas emissions and global warming; and (4) relatively high total fat, saturated fat, and calorie content of cheese in comparison with many other foods. Here is more information about each of those controversies.

Adverse reactions to cheese

The vast majority of cheese consumed in the U.S. is made from cow's milk, and cow's milk is listed by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the eight food types most closely associated with food allergy in the U.S. These eight food types are (1) wheat, (2) cow's milk, (3) hen's eggs, (4) fish, (5) crustacean shellfish (including shrimp, prawns, lobster and crab); (6) tree nuts (including cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts and chestnuts); (7) peanuts; and (8) soy foods.

Processed foods containing cheese (for example, cheese crackers) must be labeled as containing a potential allergen in the same way as foods containing cow's milk itself. In research studies, however, there is less documentation of allergic reaction to cheese than to cow's milk in the U.S. This difference makes sense to us, for one basic reason: most cheeses consumed in the U.S. have been fermented and aged for at least several weeks, and this fermentation and aging process helps break down some of the proteins contained in cow's milk and lower the chances of an allergic reaction. The type of allergic reaction we are describing here involves the body's immune system, and a response to specific proteins found in cow's milk. Some persons who are unable to consume cow's milk find that certain cheeses do not trigger the same type of allergic response by their immune system. This difference may be real and related to the fermentation and aging process involved with the production of many cheeses. Still, many individuals do experience allergic reaction to cheese and typically avoid cheese for this reason.

Cheese and lactose intolerance

A second type of adverse reaction to cheese involves the presence of lactose (milk sugar) in this food. People differ in their reaction to lactose, including the lactose found in cheese. Some people experience digestive problems after consuming very small amounts of lactose. Others can tolerate very small amounts. Since cheeses can vary significantly in the amount of lactose they contain, it's difficult to predict how a person will react to any specific cheese. However, as a general rule, fermented cheeses typically contain far less lactose than the cow's milk from which they are made. In 4 ounces of whole cow's milk, you will typically get 5-6 grams of total sugar, mostly consisting of lactose. Yet in one ounce of whole milk cheese that has been curded with the help of starter bacteria, you may get only one-thirtieth, one-fortieth, or even one-fiftieth of this amount. As explained earlier, lactic acid bacteria are often used to produce large amounts of lactic acid in milk. Lactic acid is an acidic substance that causes casein proteins in the milk to coagulate and form cheese "curds." By converting lactose into lactic acid, starter bacteria lower lactose levels in the resulting cheese. For some individuals, the lactose level becomes low enough to tolerate, even if cow's milk itself cannot be tolerated. For others, cheese is still best avoided due to this adverse reaction.

Cheese and amines

A third type of adverse reaction to cheese involves the presence of amines. In general, the longer a cheese is aged, the more digestible it becomes. The reason for this increased digestibility is simple: more of the fats and proteins in the cheese are broken down over time by living bacteria and other microorganisms present in the cheese. It wouldn't be wrong to described highly aged cheeses as "pre-digested," in the sense of having many of their proteins and fats already broken down before the cheese is consumed as a food.

While generally more digestible and less likely to cause an adverse reaction for this very reason, aged cheeses are problematic for some individuals who experience adverse reactions to protein-related substances called "amines." One of the changes that can happen during cheese aging is conversion of protein building blocks—called amino acids—into amines. Many bacteria are able to trigger this conversion process. These bacteria can take an amino acid like tyrosine and convert it into the amine called "tyramine." Similarly, they can take the amino acid tryptophan and convert it into the amine called "tryptamine." And they can take the amino acid histidine and convert it into the amine called "histamine." Tyramine, tryptamine, and histamine are examples of molecules sometimes referred to as "bioactive amines." This term is used to indicate the ability of tyramine, tryptamine, and histamine to influence nervous system and brain metabolism in susceptible persons. A migraine headache is a prominent example of the unwanted effect that dietary amines can sometimes have on a person who is sensitive to their presence in food. If you already know that you are sensitive to amines in food, you may want to avoid all cheeses in your meal plan. If you experience adverse reactions to cheese, do not know why, but still want to include cheese in your meal plan if possible, you will probably need the help of a healthcare practitioner to figure out whether amines in fermented cheeses are an issue, or whether you are experience adverse reactions for other reasons.

Lack of regulatory standards to assure a natural lifestyle for dairy cows

A second aspect of the cheese controversy involves the lifestyle of dairy cows needed to produce cheese's basic ingredient: milk. There are approximately 9.3 million dairy cows in the U.S. (mostly black and white Holsteins) and they produce about 180-195 billion pounds of milk each year. Nearly half of this milk is used for production of cheese, which averages about 9 billion pounds per year in the U.S. (These numbers reflect the fact that it takes a little more than 10 pounds of milk to produce 1 pound of cheese.) Interestingly, less than one-third of the milk from dairy cows is used in its original form as fluid milk. Given the prominence of cheese as a dairy product, it's easy to understand how the lifestyle of dairy cows might be a special concern for individuals who think about cheese and its place not only in their meal plan but also in the food supply.

In the U.S. and in many other countries, the role of dairy cows in our cultures has changed dramatically over the centuries. Instead of a small number of cows being cared for by humans living on small family farms, or a small number of cows being herded by nomadic cultures who traveled to find pasture land and water for their herds, dairy production in the United States now involves nine million dairy cows who each produce about 20,000 pounds of milk each year or 180 billion pounds total. This level of production is not possible without certain constraints on the lifestyle of the cattle. Maximal milk production is difficult if cows are left to graze in pasture year-round. Maximal milk production is also difficult if cows are only milked during the first trimester of pregnancy, rather than continuously throughout the second and third trimesters. Artificial insemination is often necessary to allow for near year-round milk production. Maximal production also tends to require milking at least twice per day. All of these practices impact the life of dairy cows.

One of the most controversial practices impacting the life of dairy cows is use of rbGH. The term rbGH stands for "recombinant bovine growth hormone," and it is estimated to be used in the raising of approximately 15-20% of U.S. dairy cows. You'll also see this hormone called rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin). Originally developed by Monsanto and now produced by Elanco (a company that acquired rights to the synthetic hormone from Monsanto in 2008), rbGH is sold under the brand name Posilac (TM), and it is one of the largest dairy animal pharmaceutical products sold in the U.S. Use of rbGH in dairy cows in the U.S. began in the mid-1990's as a way of increasing milk production. From a physiological perspective, rbGH is part of a complicated network of hormones and hormone-like substances that are required for growth and proper differentiation of cells.

An especially important part of this network is a polypeptide (small protein-like molecule) called insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1. In humans, elevated blood levels of IGF-1 are associated with increased risk of certain cancers, especially breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. Cows injected with rbGH would, of course, be expected to have elevated amounts of rbGH in their bodies. In addition, however, cows injected with rbGH would be expected to have higher levels of IGF-1 as well. A question raised by many scientists is whether humans regularly consuming milk from rbGH-injected dairy cows are at increased risk for IGF-1 exposure and IGF-1 associated cancers. We have not seen any large-scale human study that has determined regular consumption of milk from rbGH-injected cows to be a risk factor for cancer. In fact, we've found indexed-journal reviews in this area that report no evidence for this association. Still, the connection between excessive exposure to growth hormone, IGF-1, and increased cancer risk makes logical sense to us, and it is an issue that seems worthy of concern.

In the U.S., the only regulatory standards prohibiting use of rbGH in dairy products involve certified organic dairy products. The use of rbGH is strictly prohibited in certified organic foods. In other countries—including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and all countries belonging to the European Union (27 countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark) —regulations have banned rbGH in all dairy products.

One of the reasons we recommend purchase of 100% grass-fed cheese involves the better lifestyle that 100% grass feeding affords dairy cows. The vast majority of dairy cows in the U.S. are raised in Intensive Production Systems (IPSs) that provide little access to fresh pasture. IPSs generally involve confinement facilities consisting of barns, feedlots, stalls, pens, feeding alleys, and sorting alleys. In place of a fresh pasture diet, IPSs typically rely on total mixed rations (TMRs) and concentrates made from grains, fermented grains, hays, fermented hays, soymeal, soybean hulls, citrus pulp, linseed meal, cottonseed meal, and other ingredients. TMRs and concentrates can result in digestive problems for the cows including bloat and other problems.

U.S. governmental regulatory agencies do not currently provide strict dietary or pasture standards for dairy cows. For example, certified organic cow's milk and the cheese made form it does not provide strict regulations for the pasture feeding of cows. Certified organic cow's milk may be obtained from cows who only had access to pasture on 120 days of the year, and who only obtained 30% of their food from pasture on those days. Similarly, USDA certification for grass-fed dairy products requires continuous access to pasture during the growing season but not during other parts of the year. USDA grass-fed animals are required to consume grasses and forages as their food source year-round, although this rule does allow for the inclusion of cereal grain products like corn if provided in the early (vegetative and pre-seed state) state, as well as for silage and vitamin/mineral supplements. Also, USDA grass-fed animals can still be denied access to pasture and fresh grasses during the non-growing season, provided that they continue to consume grasses and forage in some form (for example, in dried or fermented form).

Requirements for pasture access and grass-based diets are stricter with third-party certification by the Food Alliance (FA) and the American Grassfed Association (AGA). These stricter requirements, which help improve the lifestyle of the cow, are one of the reasons that we recommend purchase of grass-fed cheese that has been certified by one or both of these organizations.

Potential contribution of cheese production to excess greenhouse gas emissions and global warming

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (, the average surface temperature of the earth has increased by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years. This increase in temperature is commonly referred to as "global warming," and it's due to excessive accumulation of certain gases in the atmosphere surrounding the earth. These gases are called "greenhouse gases" because they help turn the earth into a greenhouse that is warm enough for living things to survive. Greenhouse gases are a good thing. Without them, the earth would still be frozen and unable to support life. However, too many greenhouse gases create a blanket around the earth that is too thick and traps too much of the sun's heat. If too much heat is trapped, the earth's ecosystem balances get disrupted, including the flow of rivers, patterns of wind, and animal habitats.

On a global basis, about 10-15% of unwanted increases in greenhouse gases (GHGs) come from agriculture. Even though there is unwanted release of carbon dioxide (a key greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere due to the use of industrial farm equipment that requires the use of gasoline, oil, or natural gas, carbon dioxide is not the primary greenhouse gas of concern in agriculture. That distinction goes to two other greenhouse gases: methane, which is released into the atmosphere from manure (and primarily cow manure), and nitrous oxide, which is released into the atmosphere following use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers used in the cultivation of feed crops for animals (and primarily cows). So there are some direct links between the phenomenon of global warming and the raising of dairy cows in Intensive Production Systems that involve increased reliance on nitrogen-containing fertilizers and feed concentrates that increase nutrient intake, growth, and as a by-product of increased growth and consumption, manure.

These links between global warming and the raising of dairy cows naturally extend to the production of cheese, since nearly half of the 180-195 billion pounds of milk obtained from dairy cows each year are used for cheese production. A more natural lifestyle for dairy cows involving 100% grass feeding can lessen both of these problems. Less focus on intensive production can mean less use of nitrogen-containing fertilizer as well as less concentrated dietary intake resulting in less manure. These favorable environmental consequences of 100% grass feeding are another reason that we recommend selection of 100% grass-fed cheese.

It's also worth noting that 100% grass feeding typically means more emphasis on the existence of pasture land within dairy farms. This increased focused on pasture land brings with it more cultivation of food crops and cover crops. Increased crop cultivation, in turn, means increased capture of carbon dioxide by the crops and less release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air.) Some scientists have estimated that widespread use of cover crops and planted pasture land in global agriculture could turn global agriculture into an industry that actually helps reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rather than increasing it.

Relatively high total fat, saturated fat, and calorie content of cheese

The whole-milk grass-fed cheese that we profile on our website contains 114 calories, 9.23 grams of total fat, and 5.4 grams of saturated fat. On a percentage basis, those numbers translate into a food that is 73% fat and 43% saturated fat in terms of its nutrient composition. If our entire daily diet—including all foods eaten throughout the dayâ€"contained this percent total fat and this percent saturated fat, our risk of many chronic diseases would go up dramatically. Most public health organizations (like the American Heart Association) recommend that we restrict our total fat intake to 35% of our calories or less, and our saturated fat intake to no more than 7% calories. So you can see how the percentage of fat and saturated fat in whole milk, grass-fed cheese might raise concern for many individuals.

However, it's important to consider the way that a one ounce serving of whole milk, grass-fed cheese might be incorporated into an overall balanced diet. On an 1,800 calorie meal plan, for example, the 5.4 grams of saturated fat found in one ounce of whole milk, grass-fed cheese represent less than 3% of total calories—well below the 7% level recommended by the American Heart Association. Similarly, the 9.23 grams of total fat in this grass-fed cheese represent less than 5% of total calories in an 1,800-calorie meal plan. That small percentage leaves plenty of room for other fat-containing foods while still remaining below a 35% fat level in the overall meal plan.

However, you can also see how 3 ounces of whole milk, grass-fed cheese could push the saturated fat percentage above a 7% level and cause potential problems. (These 3 ounces would bring the saturated fat to a level of 16.2 grams, or 8% of total calories.) So modest serving sizes are clearly essential here for persons wanting to enjoy whole-milk grass-fed cheese as a regular part of their meal plan. Still, we can understand how some individuals might want to avoid this food altogether to give themselves even fewer chances of going "out of bounds" in terms of their overall fat and saturated fat intake.


While we believe that modest servings of whole milk cheese from 100%-grass fed cows can help to lessen some of the concerns about this food, we understand how controversial it remains and we respect the decision of many individuals to avoid it in their meal plan. We do not consider intake of whole-milk grass-fed cheese to be mandatory for anyone. At the same time, however, we recognize that some people do well when including it in their diet, and we want to provide as accurate information as we can about this controversial

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