Cheese vs Butter - Health impact and Nutrition Comparison
Cheese and butter are two of the most commonly consumed dairy products. Both are made from the milk of various mammals and are used mostly as ingredients in dishes. In this article, we will look into what other similarities these two foods share and what sets them apart, by comparing their nutritional profiles and how they affect our health.
Turning milk into cheese starts with adding bacteria to the milk, that turns the sugar lactose into lactic acid. This acidifies the milk, which slowly starts to change its state from liquid to solid. Later, an enzyme called rennet is added to speed up this process by curdling the protein called casein. During this time, the milk forms into two matters, curd and whey. Curd, the solid part, is kept, whilst whey, the liquid part, is removed. Later on, salt is added for flavour and preservation. After this, all that’s left is to give the cheese its familiar shape and let it age to the desired level of ripeness.
While cheese is made by curdling milk’s protein, butter is made by separating milk from the cream, consisting mostly of fats. The cream can be aged, after which it is churned or shaken, to the point that it separates into butter granules and buttermilk. After draining and washing the butter granules, salt and other flavourings can be added, forming it into the final product.
Taste and Use
Butter and cheese have distinct tastes and textures, even though, depending on the type, both of these aspects can change considerably. Cheese usually has a stronger texture, a saltier taste and a much higher melting point, compared to butter.
Both of these foods can be used in the kitchen in a variety of ways, in savoury dishes and pastries.
Almost every step of the complicated cheesemaking process can be altered to achieve different cheeses. However, the main difference between types of cheese depends on what kind of milk it was initially made from. Milk, used in cheesemaking, can come from cows, sheep, goats, buffalo, as well as other, less commonly used mammals, such as camels or even horses and yaks. Other factors like the aging period, fat content, texture and added ingredients also determine the type of the cheese.
Butter can be made from various types of milk as well. A change in the steps of the process results in a different kind of butter, such as cultured butter, if it is made from fermented milk, salted or unsalted butter, grass-fed butter, if it is made from the milk of grass-fed cows, and many others.
Naturally, based on the type of the cheese and butter the nutritional composition changes. For this article, we are using the nutrition for cheddar cheese and salted butter.
Macronutrients and Calories
Butter is more dense, containing only 18% water, whereas cheese consists of 37% water.
One average serving size of cheese is considered to be one slice that weighs 28g. The serving size of butter is almost half of that, one tablespoon that contains 14.2 grams of butter.
Both are very high calorie foods, however, butter, consisting mainly of fats, is much higher. It contains 717 calories per a hundred gram serving. The same amount of cheese has 404 calories.
Protein and Fats
As mentioned previously, cheese is the curdled protein of milk, whereas butter is the fat separated from milk. Naturally, cheese is much higher in protein and butter is a lot richer in fats.
Cheese is a perfect source of all essential amino acids and is particularly high in tryptophan, threonine and isoleucine. In contrast, butter contains very little protein, less than one gram of it in a hundred gram serving.
Butter contains almost three times more fat than cheese. However, when it comes to the breakdown of the fat content, they are quite similar. The dominant fat in both foods is saturated fat. Next in line, based on percentage, are the monounsaturated fatty acids, leaving polyunsaturated fatty acids in last place.
Cheese contains 3g of carbohydrates in a hundred gram serving. These carbs are all sugars, consisting of glucose, lactose and galactose.
Butter, on the other hand, contains a negligible amount of carbohydrates.
Both foods do not contain fiber.
Cheese contains more of all B complex vitamins, such as vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamins B3, B5 and B6, the folate form of vitamin B9 and vitamin B12. Cheese also contains vitamin D, whereas butter is absent in it.
Both are rich in vitamin A, however, butter contains double the amount. Butter is richer in vitamin E and vitamin K as well.
Both cheese and butter completely lack vitamin C and the folic form of vitamin B9.
Cheese is a great source of most minerals, being richer in all of them, compared to butter. Cheese contains higher levels of calcium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, iron, potassium, copper, selenium and manganese.
Butter is richer in choline and much lower in sodium.
Cheese and butter contain so little carbohydrates, that coming up with an exact number for a glycemic index is difficult (1). Both have low glycemic indices.
Adding cheddar cheese to a high glycemic index food, such as potato, pasta and toast, has been shown to reduce the glycemic index of the meal (2).
A similar study has been carried out with butter, showing that the glycemic response of bread can be lowered using fat, such as butter (3).
The acidity of cheese can vary depending on its processing method and type. Milk usually has a pH value of 6.5 to 6.7. In the process of cheesemaking it gets acidified and coagulated. The pH of different types of cheese can range from 4.4 to 6.8, making them all acidic (4). The pH values of a few popular cheeses are: gouda - 5.8, cheddar - 5.5, mozzarella - 5.3, feta - 4.4 (5).
Butter is also acidic with a pH ranging from 6.1 to 6.4 (6).
The potential renal acid load (PRAL) is another useful value for measuring acidity levels. It shows the capacity of the food to produce acid or base inside the organism.
The PRAL for cheese has been calculated to be 16.5, whereas butter has a PRAL value of 0.4. The higher this number, the more acid the food produces.
Both cheese and butter are very high in calories, but butter contains much more calories, due to its high fat content.
For a long time high calorie and high fat foods have been associated with weight gain. However, studies on this topic are not conclusive. Some studies have suggested that cheese consumption is inversely associated with weight gain (7, 8) and it might have a beneficial suppressive effect on abdominal fat accumulation (9).
Despite the common belief that dairy fat is inherently bad for your health, one study has found that high fat dairy, such as butter, may have an inverse association with obesity risk (10).
Cheese is the right choice between the two on a low fat diet, whereas butter is the relative winner if you’re on a low carb diet.
In summary, the most important aspect of weight loss is a balanced diet, there is no necessity to completely cut out butter or cheese from a weight loss diet, as long as you use it in moderation.
We already talked about the effects of cheese and butter on weight gain. Now, we will focus on other aspects of health.
A moderate association has been found between cheese consumption and a lower blood pressure (11, 12). Other studies do not find a correlation between cheese intake and blood pressure at all (13). Nevertheless, people with high blood pressure have to be aware of the high sodium levels found in some cheeses, especially in processed and salted cheese.
Similar beneficial associations have also been found between an improvement of blood pressure and butter intake (14). Conversely, some studies find diets rich in saturated fatty acids to be a significant risk factor for high blood pressure (15).
When it comes to the comparison of regular-fat or reduced-fat cheese and their effects on cardiovascular health, research has not found a significant difference between the two (16).
The negative effects of trans fatty acids from vegetable oils have been well substantiated. However, trans fatty acids from ruminant sources, which can be found in butter, may not have a significant effect on blood plasma lipid levels, although they may reduce high density lipoproteins levels (17).
The consumption of butter has been observed to have increased total cholesterol and low density lipoprotein levels more significantly, when compared to cheese (18).
Overall, the negative associations between butter consumption and cardiovascular health have weakened over the years. While butter does raise blood plasma levels to undesirable levels, scientists have not found strong correlations between butter intake and all cause mortality (18).
Multiple studies have shown a positive association between milk and dairy consumption and a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes (18)
Cheese, being high in both protein and fat, has been shown to increase insulin secretion and greatly reduce glycemic response, when consumed prior to high carbohydrate meals (19).
Saturated fatty acids do not have one definite effect on patients with type 2 diabetes (20). Foods rich in saturated fatty acids, such as butter, have to be viewed separately in order to see distinctive effects. Adding butter to a high carbohydrate meal may also help reduce the glycemic response (3).
A meta-analysis of butter’s effect on diabetes has found small or neutral associations between the two (21).
Another meta-analysis suggests a significant inverse association between the intake of cheese and type 2 diabetes (22).
Fermented dairy food intake, such as cheese, has been found to decrease bladder cancer, esophageal cancer and colorectal cancer risk (23). However another study did not find a protective association between solid cheese consumption and colorectal cancer (24).
Downsides and Risks
Unfortunately, as most things, cheese and butter come with their downsides as well.
While butter is not the villain it has been made out to be for a period of time, it still increases total cholesterol and low density lipoprotein levels in the blood (25). This can pose a risk for hypercholesteremic people with cardiovascular issues.
High cheese consumption has been associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, potentially due to the effect of cheese on oxidation levels in the brain (26)
Overall, most studies show non-significant associations between cheese and butter intake and cancers. However, a meta-analysis shows that cheese consumption may increase the risk of prostate and breast cancers, while butter consumption may lead to a higher risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (27).
In summary, cheese is the curdled protein of milk, while butter is the separated fat. Naturally, cheese is higher in protein and carbohydrates and butter contains more calories and fat. Cheese is richer in all B complex vitamins, vitamin D and all minerals, whereas butter is higher in vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K and choline. Butter also contains less sodium.
Cheese may be the better choice for cardiovascular health, but both of these foods have been studied to have positive effects on type 2 diabetes.
Overall, whichever you choose, both cheese and butter consumed in moderation, can be a part of a healthy diet.
Vitamin and Mineral Summary Scores
Comparison summary table
|Lower in Cholesterol|
|Lower in Saturated Fat|
|Rich in minerals|
|Rich in vitamins|
|Lower in Sugars|
|Lower in Sodium|
|Lower in price|
|Lower in glycemic index||Equal|
Which food is preferable in case of diets?
|Low Calories diet|
|Low Fats diet|
|Low Carbs diet|
|Low glycemic index diet||Equal|
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All nutrients comparison - raw data values