Top 5 Cheese Myths Debunked

Science to the rescue! Let’s make solid understanding a resolution this year.

Cheese Myths Busted

It’s a new year and resolutions are rampant. Mine is to curb my cereal habit. I ended 2019 by consuming about three bowls of cereal every night before bed. Since milk is involved, I figured it was apropos to give that personal anecdote. Now back to the cheese! I’ve compiled five myths I often hear repeated by folks who make up the entire spectrum of the cheese world — consumers to mongers to my fellow food scientists (gasp!) I think it’s important to mention that I try my hardest to avoid nutrition/health advice on this site and that holds true for this post. Please consult a doctor/dietician with any serious questions.


Myth #1: Cheese and Lactose Intolerance

“Those who suffer from lactose intolerance can’t eat cheese”

This is a common myth that is perpetuated in the consumer circles. People often conflate the presence of lactose as being the same as dairy in general. This couldn’t be further from the truth! We’ve discussed lactose in depth in a previous post, so I’ll keep it pretty brief here. It’s important to remember that in many cheeses lactose is fermented by lactic acid bacteria to form lactic acid. And those little guys can be very efficient, which means that many many cheeses end up having virtually no lactose by the time of consumption. Take an average cheddar cheese, like the example below.

Lactose during cheddar making and aging. Hover over the blinking dots to learn more! Data adapted from Fox et. al. 1990.

It’s also important to remember that the lactose content of the major milks used in dairy product technology is all about equal. Meaning, goat milk and sheep milk have similar lactose content to cow milk. So if you’re actually lactose intolerant, how the cheese is made is more important than what kind of milk was used. Of course, you could have a dairy allergy. But that’s a different story all together.


Myth #2: Soft Cheeses are as Fatty as Butter

“Very runny/creamy cheeses like ripe Brie are fatty; their texture is due to all that fat”

This myth is the one that causes me to get out my soapbox more than any other cheese myth. Somehow it has become ingrained in our culture that soft/runny cheeses are tremendously fatty. That is simply untrue 99% of the time. If a cheese is flowing like lava that is due to water, not fat! Especially heinous is when the fat content of Brie is compared to that of butter. Unforgivable. For example, a typical small-batch Brie may only be ~30% fat (lower in industrial varieties), cheddar ~35% fat, and butter a whopping 80% fat or more.

brie cheddar butter fat content

Basic composition information for brie, cheddar, and butter

A quick glance the water column above shows why Brie is so soft. A good rule of thumb is if something is flowing like water, it probably has a fair amount of water in it. I wouldn’t be an academic if I didn’t do some waffling and hand waving at this point. The full scientific reason for the softening and flow of Brie/Camembert is complicated and involves things like mineral concentration gradients and crystal formation. You can read more about it here.


Myth #3: The Crunchy Bits in/on Cheese are Salt Crystals

"Those crunchy bits in/on Parm, Cheddar, Gouda are salt crystals; the grit on washed rind cheeses is residual brine"

I’m a bit of broken record when it comes to cheese crystals, so I’ll try not to drone on. Briefly, salt (sodium chloride – NaCl) has such a high solubility is highly unlike to ever actually crystallize in cheese. Cheese contains too much residual moisture for this to occur. Instead, I like to think about cheese crystals as belonging to four major groupings.

cheese crystals infographic

The main types of cheese crystals. Click the image or here to learn more!

  • Cheddar-Type Cheeses: these crystals are likely calcium lactate is usually found on the surface as white specks/haze.
  • Aged Italian, Dutch, and Alpine Cheeses: these crystals are likely amino acid crystals such as tyrosine or leucine. Often found in the eyes of such cheeses and as distinct white granules.
  • Washed-Rind Cheeses: these crystals are likely mineral-based crystals being composed of things such as calcium and magnesium. This is the rind-associated grittiness or sandiness common to smear ripened cheeses.
  • White Mold Cheeses: you probably didn’t know that the rinds of most Bries and Camemberts are chalk-full of calcium carbonate crystals! (The mineralogists out there had a nice little chuckle since chalk is made of calcite, which is a fancy term for calcium carbonate) These crystals are very soft, so you don’t notice them.

If you’d really like to learn more about cheese crystals you can check out a whole website devoted to them here. Hours and hours of fun are ahead! Full disclosure: that’s my site, so buyer beware.


Myth #4: You Shouldn’t Eat the Rind of Brie

"Eating Brie cheese rind is entirely a personal choice driven by taste preferences"

This one will probably be the hottest take. Eating Brie’s rind is certainly a personal preference related choice, but I’d like to take it one step further. You also have to consider the nutritional ramifications. Above we talked about the presence of calcium carbonate crystals on the surface of Brie. The astute reader may have asked themselves: “How did that calcium get there?”. Well the cheesemaker didn’t sprinkle it on. It came from within the cheese itself.

brie cheese calcium migration crystals

Calcium moves outwards as Brie and Camembert ripens

That’s right! Many bloomy rind cheeses like Brie and Camembert exhibit a cool property of mineral migration. Things like calcium slowly more from the center of the cheese to the surface. Side note: this is really important to them softening as well. That calcium is basically cheese glue. So when it leaves the center of the cheese, the middle goes all soft.


Myth #5: Aged Cheddar = Young Cheddar + Time

"You can just take a young cheddar and age it to make a great aged cheddar"

This is perhaps the most surprising to even cheese aficionados. The fact is that young cheddar and aged cheddar are made differently. Young cheddar is usually higher in moisture and slightly lower in salt. If you age that cheese, it’ll turn out a bitter nasty mess. That is because the higher moisture and lower salt allows many of the biochemical reactions in cheese to go intro overdrive. Residual rennet is chopping away at protein making bitter peptides; starter culture like low salt and are going gangbusters making acid and potentially off-flavor compounds.

aged young sharp cheddar difference

Young Cheddar and Aged Cheddar are made differently!

If the intention is to age cheddar for longer periods (i.e. months), then cheesemakers usually target slightly lower moisture contents and slightly higher salt contents. This accomplishes a few things. It slows down those reactions we discussed, which allows for better ripening. Not only does salt slow down microbially activity, it also help balance the bitter flavors that are an important part of many aged cheddar flavor profiles.

Top 5 Cheese Myths

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