However, traditional cow’s milk cheeses can get a bad rap—especially if you have trouble digesting lactose, or if you notice that your acne flares up the more you consume your cheese of choice. And even if these potential pitfalls don’t apply to you, there can be too much of a good thing: While cheese offers the likes of protein and calcium, it’s often high in saturated fat and salt, which should be consumed in moderation to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Still, you can remain optimistic if the idea of nixing cheese from your diet is too much to bear. It turns out that grass-fed goat cheese and sheep cheese figure into the diets of two Blue Zones—aka regions of the world where people live the longest. To figure out how these cheeses complement these well-known diets for longevity, we consulted Taylor Fazio, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and wellness advisor at The Lanby in New York City.
The benefits of grass-fed animal products
Before we dive into the nutrition profiles of goat cheese and sheep cheese, it’s important to call out the benefits of consuming cheese—as well as meat and other dairy products—from animals that graze on grass. “Grass-fed products have more beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally fed animals,” Fazio says. “These products contain less inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, which we want to consume in moderation, and in smaller amounts than anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.”
While omega-6s aren’t inherently “bad,” per a 2021 review, over-consuming them while having a low intake of omega-3s “is highly associated with the pathogenesis of many modern diet-related chronic diseases.” Read: The right balance is key. “The nutrient content of grass-fed cheese is also higher in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and is a quality source of protein compared to conventional options,” Fazio adds.
Are goat cheese and sheep cheese significantly healthier than cow’s cheese?
By this point, you might have made a mental note to shop for the grass-fed version of your favorite cow’s cheese on your next grocery haul. While this may be a worthy upgrade, it still may be worth taking a cue from the Blue Zones to prioritize different varieties. According to the official Blue Zones website, goat milk and sheep milk products “figure prominently in the traditional menus of both the Ikarian and Sardinian Blue Zones,” albeit in relatively small amounts and only a few times a week, rather than daily.
“Goat and sheep cheese tend to have a slightly healthier nutrient profile than cow's cheese. For example, goat's milk has a slightly higher protein content and contains healthy fatty acids and vitamins,” Fazio says. She also calls out the attractive benefit of its lower lactose content, which makes it more digestion-friendly for many people. (In fact, lactose intolerance affects as many as 65 to 70 percent of the global population.) And per a 2014 review, goat’s milk “has been shown to trigger innate and adaptive immune responses in an in vitro human system, also inhibiting the endotoxin-induced activation of monocytes,” which may encourage immune homeostasis.
“Goat and sheep cheese tend to have a slightly healthier nutrient profile than cow's cheese. For example, goat's milk has a slightly higher protein content and contains healthy fatty acids and vitamins,” Fazio says.
“Similarly, sheep's cheese contains vitamins and minerals essential for health and is considered a high-protein food source,” Fazio continues. According to a 2021 article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, the bioactive substances in sheep’s milk “have antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties” and may have profound influences on human health, potentially helping to protect against “the occurrence of type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.”
As impressive as the research on milk from goats and sheep appears, the fact that cheese is fermented may yield even greater health wins. “Fermented foods like cheese and yogurt offer living microbes such as beneficial bacteria and yeasts that support the gut microbiome and improve digestion,” Fazio explains. (She also notes that the process of fermentation can decrease lactose, which again can promote better digestion in those with even a mild lactose intolerance.) “Having an array of fermented food options in your diet is imperative for gut health, immunity, even mood support,” says Fazio. This is because beneficial bacteria promote gut diversity and thus physical and mental well-being.
Cheese can be a staple in a well-rounded diet that supports longevity—even more so if you prioritize that from grass-fed goats and sheep, versus conventionally fed cows. That said, Fazio takes care to note that the swap shouldn’t be mistaken for a one-and-done solution to improve your lifespan, as countless variables contribute to the positive health outcomes across the Blue Zones. “Daily habits such as being consistently active, consuming whole foods cultivated from local areas, and eating in moderation and with mindfulness—along with a sense of community—in these spaces play a large role in overall health,” says Fazio.
Fazio says that the presence of goat and sheep cheese in certain Blue Zones “is likely more an associated positive dietary factor rather than causative.”
Moreover, Fazio says that the presence of goat and sheep cheese in certain Blue Zones “is likely more an associated positive dietary factor rather than causative.” In other words, these cheeses are only one small (albeit tasty) part of a much larger puzzle, and may complement—rather than directly result in—pro-longevity perks.
“The benefit of a nutrient-dense, high-protein food such as goat and sheep's cheese, along with a plant-forward diet, are tenets we can all follow to lead a more healthful life. Goat and sheep cheese can be easily added to dishes for a protein and nutrient boost, along with a devious texture and flavor that mimics the habits of Blue Zones,” Fazio concludes.
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