Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Eating cheese as medicine

Photo by Mustang Joe on Flickr

Cheese has been part of human fare since the dawn of history. Already about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago the Sumerians were making cheese from milk by curdling it with enzymes from animal stomachs to prevent it from spoiling. They used it for food, but also for medicinal purposes, for diarrhea, constipation, digestive disorders, or gout, and so did the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.

Hippocrates (460–370 BC) recommended cheese for treating fevers and disorders of the lungs. In ancient Rome cheese was a popular food, a symbol of social status, consumed during banquets, valued for its rich flavors, also used for medicinal purposes. Galen (AD 130–200), who came from Pergamon but settled in Rome and served as personal physician to several emperors, recommended cheese for various medical conditions. In the Middle Ages, cheese was used as a binding agent to create plasters for wounds or to draw out infections. It was also a luxury food, often made in monasteries by monks, who refined cheese-making techniques and passed down their knowledge from generation to generation.

Cheese was particularly important for communities that lacked access to fresh milk. The fermentation process in cheese-making enhances its digestibility, making it easier for persons with lactose intolerance to consume. Moldy, aged cheese was thought to have antimicrobial properties. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some physicians experimented with using cheeses such as cheddar as a dietary aid for patients with consumption (tuberculosis). The high calories and protein were thought to help counteract weight loss.

In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, cheese made from buffalo milk is known as “paneer.” It is believed to have “cooling properties” and is recommended for balancing the body’s doshas (energies). In modern times, cheese is known to provide calories, calcium, and vitamins. Less certain are benefits promoted as boosting the immune system, preventing cancer, supporting gut health (probiotic), strengthening bones, having anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects, and providing linoleic acid (CLA).

Various modern cheeses contain somewhat different amounts of calories, fat, and protein. Some of the “healthiest” cheeses, such as feta, ricotta, goat cheese, and mozzarella, are lower in calories and fat, but the differences do not seem to be significant when cheeses are eaten in moderation. In general, an ounce (28 grams) of hard cheese (or a half-cup of cottage cheese) provides about 90 to 120 calories, 4–8 g fat, and 7–12 g protein.

In the past, cheese has been responsible for transmitting certain diseases, notably those due to Salmonella, Campylobacter, Brucella, Shigella, Norovirus toxin, and Listeria. Bovine tuberculosis was often transmitted through unpasteurized milk, which is now generally illegal to sell in the United States, or by improper milk handling, unhygienic cheese-making processes, and inadequate quality testing. Some cases have resulted from employees having intestinal disturbances or from carriers of the disease (especially typhoid). In one extreme case reported in 1945, a dead mouse found in cheese was said to have been removed by the manufacturer, who then went ahead and sold his product in three states in the Midwest.

As a culinary delight, cheese has stood the test of time. Its diverse ranges of flavors, textures, and aromas have captivated our senses and elevated our dining experiences. Its sheer variety ranges from soft brie to pungent blue cheese and firm, elastic Gouda. Cheese brings people together over wine, cheese tasting, a fondue party, or sharing a cheeseboard. It is the subject of numerous books on cooking, eating, on serving and storing cheese, where to buy it and where to eat it, perhaps at the newest and most expensive restaurant, but these are outside the scope of this brief review.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Summer 2023 | Sections | Food

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