A Cheesy Guide for the Perplexed

The experts reveal the nutritional value of some of the holiday's most popular products.

The Shavuot holiday traditionally sends cheese sales rocketing 230% compared to non-holiday times, but Israelis do not need Shavuot as an excuse to feast on dairy products. The local cheese industry is estimated to turn over NIS 3 billion annually, reports A C Nielsen Israel. Cottage cheese is the biggest seller accounting for 28% of total sales (in shekels ), with Tnuva's 5% cottage cheese the category leader.

"Cheeses are a good source of protein, calcium and vitamins," said Michal Sukman, a clinical dietitian with Maccabi Health Services. There are differences of opinion as to the place of cheese in nutrition systems, she said, but the approach of clinical dietitians is that if there is no proof of sensitivity to lactose, cheese is recommended since it helps create a feeling of satiation. There is evidence that proper consumption of dairy products can contribute to preventing cancer and osteoporosis, proper weight control and building proper bone mass for children. The daily recommendation for calcium is high, 1,000 milligrams," said Sukman.

David Bachar

Sukman recommends dairy products enriched with calcium and low (no more than 5% ) in fat.

So which cheeses are more recommended and which less so? We asked three dietitians: Sukman, Einat Mazor from Clalit Health Services and Sigal Frishman from Beilinson Hospital, Rabin Medical Center, Petah Tikva.

We presented the three dietitians with six categories of cheeses: Bulgarian feta, cottage, soft white spreadable, hard yellow, creamy soft white, and Safed, a salty semi-hard white cheese. We asked them to point out the advantages and disadvantages of various brands of each of these types of cheeses.

Bulgarian: Lots of sodium

All the Bulgarian cheeses had high concentrations of sodium, 1,300 to 1,860 milligrams per 100 grams of cheese. "Those are outrageous levels of sodium," said Mazor. "That is over half the daily recommended amount," which she noted is 2,500 milligrams. "Salt is a risk factor for heart disease and high blood pressure." Recent research shows that if we would reduce sodium consumption by three grams a day, half a teaspoon, it would be the equivalent of stopping smoking in health terms, she said. "You do not need to go for the lowest sodium foods, but certainly it is not worth choosing food that immediately adds 1,000 milligrams of sodium to the menu," she said.

The Safed cheese may also look quite innocent, but it also has particularly high sodium levels: 700 to 1,000 milligrams per 100 grams. The dietitians recommend eating these cheeses also in moderation. But as opposed to the Bulgarian cheeses which have about 250 milligrams of calcium, the Safed cheeses have much more calcium per 100 grams, about 550 milligrams. Sukman says that in this case it is better to give up the calcium and not consume too much sodium, since the damage from the sodium to health is much worse than the benefits from the calcium.

Also beware of cheeses marked "lightly salted." They do not necessarily have low sodium levels. For example, the Safed cheese from Gad Dairies is labeled lightly salted, and it does have less sodium than its competitors, but it still contains some 700 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, which is far from the definition of low sodium, 100 milligrams per 100 grams.

Cottage cheese: Strauss has twice as much calcium

Cottage cheese has less sodium than Bulgarian or Safed, but it is also not low in sodium. Strauss' cottage cheese comes out the best in calcium levels, with 200 milligrams per 100 grams, while Tnuva and Tara products have only 100 milligrams of calcium. Mazor says the differences are critical. Tara labels the cover of its cottage cheese: BIO + calcium + Vitamin D. All of these are present, but when a company emphasizes specific items over others, the customer will likely think that the product is enriched with these items, but that is not the case here. Tara said: "Our cottage cheese is enriched with calcium. The total level of calcium in 100 grams of cheese is about 10% of the recommended level, and helps keep the refined and excellent taste of the product."

Soft white cheeses: Low in sodium

The soft white spreadable cheeses have a relatively low level of sodium, about 200 to 260 milligrams per 100 grams. Here again Strauss offers the highest amounts of calcium compared to its competitors, about 200 milligrams, compared to only 95-130 milligrams for its rivals.

The bestselling hard yellow cheeses in Israel contain over 2% fat. Even though there are 9% fat cheeses available, we asked the dietitians about the higher- fat yellow cheeses. Don't rule out yellow cheeses, said Frishman. "We examine whether food is healthy or not based on the overall combination of what it has to offer, and if we know that a single small unit of cheese provides 200 milligrams of calcium, in certain cases it is worth it," she said.

Creamy white cheeses: Lots of fat, little calcium

The biggest selling creamy soft white cheeses contain over 22% fat, and we asked the dietitians to take a look at them. "This category is not recommended for a large part of the population because of its high saturated fat levels," said Mazor. It can clog arteries and lead to heart disease, she said. Even healthy people should not eat too much of these cheeses since the effect is cumulative - and this is the cheese people eat on holidays and at special events, said Mazor.

As opposed to yellow cheeses, which are high in fat but also high in calcium, creamy white cheeses have lots of fat and little calcium. But there are big differences between the brands. Tnuva's Napoleon, the biggest seller in the category, does not even list the amount of calcium, which implies that the value is very low. Strauss' creamy cheeses have 90 milligrams of calcium, and only Gad offers high levels: 210 milligrams per 100 grams.