Salt Reduction

High Levels of Sodium Age-Old Problem for Cheese

There are few things more indulgently decadent than cheese. Whether it’s the stretchy mozzarella topping on a pizza, gooey melted cheddar on a burger, or a selection of artisanal cheeses on a charcuterie board – cheese makes everything more delicious.

The global market in cheese reached a value of US$ 72 billion in 2020, and the market is forecast to reach 106 billion by 2026. 

One big factor driving this growth is the expansion of Western food chains into the Asia-Pacific region. From pizza to tacos and sandwiches, there’s one item you’ll find on every menu: cheese.  

While advocates of healthier food choices have focused their attention on the fat content of cheese, it has an equally risky component: SALT. Most cheese has a high sodium problem. And unfortunately, the cheeses that are most popular are also those with some of the highest sodium content. 

Cheese across the world

Everywhere you go, people love cheese. Each region has its favourites. 

The EU leads the world with the highest per capita consumption of cheese. 

Across Europe, the favourites are mainly milder cheeses. Britain’s favourite is Cheddar. Gouda is the favourite in Germany, Camembert is number one in France, Italy loves Parmigiano Reggiano, and the Nordic countries prefer Emmental, Brie, and Jarlsberg.

In the US, the top choices are Cheddar, American and Mozzarella, according to this recent poll of over 8,000 Americans. 

As dairy-heavy Western diets are increasingly adopted across Asia, the world is gaining more and more cheese fans. China is the largest producer and consumer of cheese in Asia, with a cheese market valued at US$ 2.1 billion.

Just like US and UK, the popular cheeses in Asia are cheddar and mozzarella, with interest in US cheeses like Monterey Jack and Pepper Jack increasing. 

The amount of salt in different varieties of cheese varies from lower-sodium fresh cheese like ricotta, to high-sodium aged hard cheeses like Parmesan. We take a look though the cheese categories as listed in the WHO sodium benchmarks, and what their sodium targets should be. 

Soft to medium cheeses

Cheeses like Emmental, Gouda, and Mild Cheddar are some examples of this category. These are some of the most popular household cheeses in Europe. Although they’re on the lower end of the sodium scale – with a benchmark of 520mg/100g – many manufacturers exceed this. We found the following products in supermarkets:

  • Emmental – 600mg/100g
  • Mild Cheddar – 720mg/100g
  • Edam – 820mg/100g
  • Gouda – 920mg/100g

Hard and semi-hard cheeses

As a general rule, the older and harder a cheese, the higher its sodium content. This group includes cheeses with a longer ripening period like Gruyere, Provolone, and mature Cheddar. The sodium benchmark for these is 625mg/100g. Again, we found samples of this category that were way over their benchmark:

  • Gruyere – 712mg/100g
  • Mature Cheddar – 720mg/100g
  • Provolone – 1000mg/100g

Mould ripened cheese

These are softer texture cheeses, so have sodium levels similar to the soft to medium group. The difference is that these cheeses are ripened with mould, rather than age. The group includes white and red mould cheeses such as Brie, Camembert and Munster. Their benchmark 510mg/100g, but we found quite a few examples of products exceeding that:

  • Camembert – 560mg/100g
  • Munster – 628mg/100g
  • Brie – 680mg/100g

Processed cheese

This is possibly the largest category, as it covers all processed and analogue cheese, as well as cheese spreads. The WHO sodium benchmark for these is 720mg/100g. 

Processed cheese slices are made with a variety of added seasonings, and this includes added salt. One the most popular US cheese products, American cheese, smashes the WHO benchmark with 1671mg per 100g. 

Cheese spreads are another popular processed cheese format. One favourite American brand of cheese spread contains 1623mg of sodium per 100g. A popular brand of European cheese spread has 1080mg per 100g. 

Plant-based alternatives

The surge in the plant-based food market has given us a new kind of “cheese.” Dairy-free cheese alternatives are made in many different styles, designed to mimic the most popular varieties of cheese. 

Just a few years ago, the PB cheese selection for consumers was limited to one or two plain mild products. Today, the market has expanded to include products in the styles of feta, Cheddar, Parmesan, and halloumi. 

Whatever the flavour or style, plant-based cheese alternatives all fall within the processed cheese category, and so their WHO sodium benchmark is 720mg/100g.

Here’s a sample of a few plant-based products we found in supermarkets that exceed that benchmark:

  • Cheddar style – 760mg/100g
  • Halloumi style – 880mg/100g
  • Feta style – 952mg/100g
  • Parmesan style – 1520mg/100g

Off-the-chart cheese

Some cheese categories have so much sodium, the WHO could not set acceptable benchmarks for them at this time. They found that the lowest maximum sodium levels for these were just too high to be considered healthy. 

This group includes some the best-loved household cheeses. Brine-stored cheeses like feta and halloumi are in this high-sodium tier, along with blue cheeses, and the extra-hard ripened cheeses like Parmesan. 

Although the WHO declined to include these cheeses in its benchmarks, the FDA set targets for them in their recently issued guidance. 

The saltiest of this group is the hard cheese that many of us enjoy grated over pasta. The FDA’s sodium target for Parmesan and Romano is 1820mg/100g. It’s clear that this is an excessive amount of sodium to have in a single food item, given that the RDI for sodium is 2,300mg. That means that a single 100g serving of hard cheese would be 80% of the daily sodium allowance.

Blue cheeses are another member of the high-sodium group. While there are many varieties, the most popular are Gorgonzola and Stilton. The FDA recommends a sodium target of 1450mg/100g for these cheeses. This amount is similar to the FDA’s target for notoriously salty foods like pretzels and cured ham. 

As for the last of the highest-sodium cheeses, the FDA sets a target for feta only, not including any other brine-stored cheeses like halloumi in the category. Its sodium target for feta is 1240mg/100g. Even with such a relatively high target, many products exceed this, with one premium organic feta containing 1320mg/100g.

Topping it off

Why does the sodium in cheese matter? Because it’s rarely consumed on its own. Cheese is one part of a meal, often the topping of a main dish, or as an ingredient within a composite food product. 

If the cheese in a single meal such as a burrito or sandwich – or top of a pizza – contains one-third of your daily limit for sodium, then you’re already on track to exceed that limit – by a long way.

The WHO has set benchmarks for composite foods that range from 430mg/100g for a sandwich, to 250mg/100g for ready meals. So, adding cheese to a recipe can easily push the sodium content way beyond those healthy targets. 

Naturally reducing sodium in cheese

Cheese makes everything better, but what makes cheese better? Reducing its sodium content with SALTWELL®.

As a natural sea salt, SALTWELL® provides the same flavour and function as PDV salt, but with 35% lower sodium. That’s a massive reduction that goes a long way to keeping cheese products at or below sodium benchmarks.

If you’d like to learn more about how a simple 1:1 replacement with SALTWELL® can improve the nutritional profile of your foods, get in touch or request samples. 

Related Posts