Eating less cheese is probably the most difficult part of eating fewer animal products. So what kind of cheese is the most sustainable? And how does cheese fit into a sustainable diet?
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Main learning: it’s the serving size that matters, not the type of cheese
Goal: use smaller amounts of cheese and treat it like a luxury product
Impact: medium 🌍🌎🌏⚪️⚪️
Cheese lovers, this is for you. I count myself to this group of people who find it surprisingly easy to avoid meat but can’t imagine giving up cheese.
But as we discussed in a previous post, cheese has one of the highest footprints right after meat. For somebody with the average Dutch diet, all the cheese they eat causes the same amount of greenhouse gases as all the chicken they eat.
The Dutch are absolute cheese lovers. Have a look how much dairy contributes to the climate impact of all their food consumption. The graph is in the Fork Ranger book (page 102).
What makes it extra tricky is that cheese is often used to replace meat. So when you decide to cut down on meat, you almost automatically eat more cheese. Think about it: how often is the only other sandwich option one with some kind of cheese? Caprese, gouda, brie…
The EAT-Lancet report calculated that in a sustainable diet, everyone would get 250 g of milk equivalents per day. This translates to about one small slice of cheese or one glass of milk or yoghurt. That’s a lot less than the average European eats right now.
The impact of cheese
The challenge for determining the precise impact of cheese is that it’s just one of the many products made from milk. So it’s a big puzzle which inputs – like the feed for the cows – are attributed to which end-product.
Milk is the biggest factor of the cheese impact, because like with most foods, the majority of greenhouse gases are released during production and not during transportation or packaging.
Cow, goat or sheep milk
Milk for cheese production comes most of all from cows, but sometimes also from sheep or goats. That’s because all three animals are ruminants: they are especially well-adapted to eat grass and have a stomach to turn all that grass into lots of milk.
One big reason that cheese has a high footprint is that ruminants burp methane during the digestion of grass. And methane is a powerful greenhouse gas.
So is one type of milk or cheese more sustainable than the others? A simple question but a hard one to answer.
Cow, goat and sheep milk have different compositions in terms of fat and protein. That means there is no single value we can use for their impact. On average, the impact of goat’s milk is 1.5 times and of sheep’s milk 2 times that of cow’s milk. But the data varies so much that there are goat and sheep milks that are similar to cow’s milk or even better in terms of CO2 impact per litre.
And then this is only about milk and doesn’t translate directly to cheese. When making the same kind of cheese, you need fewer litres of sheep’s milk because the protein content is higher than that of cow’s milk. So this partly makes up for the higher CO2 impact per litre.
But does it even out? We don’t have enough data to draw general conclusions about the sustainability of goat, sheep and cow’s cheese. Instead, we have to look at a different aspect of cheese making.
Soft and hard cheese
The amount of milk needed to make 1 kg cheese not only depends on which animal the milk comes from, but also whether you’re making soft or hard cheese. Soft cheese is less dense and contains fewer grams of protein and fat, so it also requires less milk to produce.
For fresh cheese, like cottage cheese, we would need around 4 litres of milk, for soft cheese like Mozzarella 5 to 8 litres and for hard cheese 9 to 10 litres.
Even though the exact numbers differ per research, on average all research shows the difference between soft and hard cheese. The CO2 footprint of hard cheese is roughly a third higher than the footprint of fresh and soft cheese.
Here is the impact of four common types of cheese.
Typical serving sizes
So should we reach for Mozzarella instead of Gouda? Only if we would always eat the same amount for every cheese. But that’s not what happens in real life because people tend to eat bigger serving sizes of soft cheese.
Instead of only looking at CO2 per kg, we need to compare CO2 per serving. In other words, how much cheese do we need to create a similar kind of ‘cheese experience’?
Let’s assume we’re making pasta and compare the four types of cheese. If we have four people and use Grana Padano to finish the plate, we would probably use half of the cheese, so around 80 g.
For feta, we’re using 150 g. That’s the amount specified in our recipes and how you can buy the organic pack at the biggest supermarket in the Netherlands. Feta also has a strong taste so we need less of it than if we use a pack of grated Gouda. So for Gouda we use 200 g.
And if we’re using mozzarella everyone gets half a ball, so we need two packages for a total of 250 g.
The conclusion is simple but powerful: if we use stronger tasting cheeses like Grana Padano or feta, we can use less cheese in total, decreasing the carbon footprint.
Another advantage of Grana Padano or other Italian hard cheeses is that you can store them for a long time, so you don’t have to use the entire package all at once.
Overall, cheese has a high footprint and just like meat we need to treat it like a luxury product.
While not every cheese has the same carbon footprint, the differences are rather small, especially when considering serving size. It doesn’t seem worth the effort to optimise the type of cheese.
Instead, it’s more effective to find ways to use less cheese per serving. One example is parmesan cheese and generally grating cheese yourself.
Overall, the best strategy is to look for recipes that don’t include cheese at all and then treat yourself on other days. I usually don’t eat cheese during the week but I’m not too strict about it.
Even though many people call the Fork Ranger book a cookbook, Frank mainly wrote it to share a hopeful perspective on how we – you and I – can become part of the solution for climate change. Besides knowing what’s sustainable, changing our attitudes and experiences is the hardest but also most powerful.
As with many things in life, a sustainable diet means eating cheese in moderation. So far I’ve found that I now enjoy cheese even more. It’s not part of my default meals so when I buy cheese, it feels like a treat and I can also afford to buy better quality.
What’s your relationship to cheese and did we miss anything in this analysis? Let us know in the comments.
Tips to eat cheese sustainably
- Cut thin slices; taste is more important than the amount
- Use smaller amounts of stronger-tasting cheeses (e.g. fresh goat cheese and feta compared to ricotta and mozzarella)
- Grate Parmesan yourself and use a fine grating structure; you will get more particles and experience more of the taste.
- Challenge yourself to eat cheese for lunch OR dinner
- “OP=OP” give yourself a cheese ‘budget’: buy a certain amount that corresponds with the weekly consumption you are aiming for.