Raw Cheese: Good or Bad?

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Buying artisanal, local foods, including unpasteurized cheeses made from raw milk, is very popular at the moment. Some advocates even claim that raw cheese is healthier, but of course there are two sides to every story. Read on for the pros, cons and the verdict on eating raw cheese.

The Good

According to Carlos Yescas, program director at Oldways Cheese Coalition, “the benefits of eating raw milk cheese are many, amongst the most important are the diversity of the microorganisms that are present in these cheeses.” Although there are many questions that still remain due to the complexity of the human microbiome, these microbes found in raw milk cheese can help fight infection and disease.

Many folks, including myself, have food safety concerns when it comes to raw milk cheese. Yescas explains that in order to keep food safety under control it is important to source good milk. The raw cheese producers must pay attention to the quality of the milk, which included the living conditions of the animals, the nutrition of the dairy cows, and animal husbandry.

“Because the processing of raw milk will not go through pasteurization (heat treatment) it is even more important to ensure that the conditions around the milking parlor are clean and safe,” says Yescas. Further, producers are mandated to constantly train their employees, as well as follow food safety guidelines (known as HACCP) that ensure that the points of contamination where pathogens can be introduced are carefully supervised.

Raw milk also contains the same nutrients found in pasteurized cheese, including protein and calcium, and is just as tasty as its pasteurized counterpart. Plus, many smaller artisan producers make raw milk cheeses, so purchasing these cheeses are a good way to support local agriculture and rural economic sustainability.

The Bad

Cheese is typically pasteurized, or heat treated to destroy pathogenic microorganisms while maintaining the nutritional quality of the end product. It is a way to help ensure the cheese does not contain harmful bacteria that can potentially make you sick. Those with a lower immune system, like kids, pregnant and breastfeeding women, older folks, and those with chronic disease (like cancer or HIV) are advised not to eat raw milk cheese.

Many of these artisanal unpasteurized cheeses are sold at local farmers’ markets where they sit outdoors all day in the hot sun. These poor handling and temperature control practices can lead to bacterial growth and ultimately cause the customer to become sick.

Further, although there may be some beneficial microorganisms found in raw milk cheese, the research of the microbiome is still just emerging.

The Verdict

If you choose to eat raw cheese then make sure you know where you are buying it from and how the producer treats and raises their milking cows.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.