Cottage Cheese

If you’ve been too busy spooning up Greek yogurt to notice the changes in the cottage cheese section of the dairy case lately, you’re probably not alone. Americans consume about six times more yogurt than cottage cheese—13.4 pounds vs. 2.1 pounds a year—according to the Department of Agriculture. And cottage cheese has long been viewed as a bland, boring “diet food,” while yogurt is seen as a probiotic, protein-packed, powerhouse.

But nutritionally, cottage cheese rivals yogurt, and both long-time producers and newer companies are trying to change its image. Look more closely at the dairy case and you’ll see single-serving cups, new flavors, and labels promoting live active cultures, protein content, and a smooth texture. Cottage cheese, some experts say, is poised for a comeback. 

“Everything comes around full circle, and it’s time for cottage cheese to get its day,” says Debbie Petitpain, M.S., R.D.N., wellness director at the Medical University of South Carolina and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cottage cheese checks many (if not all) of the boxes for nutrition, affordability, and other good things. What’s more, it's incredibly versatile.  

Cottage Cheese Nutrition

Cottage cheese is a fresh cheese; it's not aged or ripened the way hard cheeses like cheddar or Parmesan are. To make it, an acid or acid-producing culture is added to milk (usually nonfat), which begins the process of separating the liquid whey protein from the milk solids, or curds. The curds are washed, then cream and salt are added.  

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The curds are what give cottage cheese its lumpy appearance. (Although ricotta cheese looks similar, it’s made from the whey that’s left during cheese making.) Some cottage cheese comes with large curds, some with small; the product's label will let you know which one it contains. Nutrition-wise, there generally isn't a difference, so choose the one you like best. Some brands are also smooth or whipped, which translates into no lumps.

The resulting cheese is a high-volume, low-calorie food that’s also high in protein. A half-cup serving of full-fat (called 4% milk fat) plain cottage cheese has about 100 calories, 12 grams of protein, and 4.5 grams of fat (1.8 grams of saturated fat). The same amount of plain whole milk yogurt has 165 calories, 15 grams of protein, and 8.5 grams of fat (4 grams of saturated fat).

Like yogurt, flavored cottage cheese can contain added sugars and is higher in calories than plain varieties. Check the label: Added sugars can be as little as 5 grams (about a teaspoon) to as much as 14 grams (3.5 teaspoons) per serving.

The protein in cottage cheese is mainly casein protein, which is digested more slowly than whey protein and can help promote satiety. According to a small study published in the journal Appetite, cottage cheese may be just as satisfying as eggs, which some nutritionists recommend as a more filling alternative to carb-heavy breakfasts like cereal and bagels. In the study, both morning meals suppressed hunger hormones and feelings of hunger equally, the researchers found.

Cottage cheese also packs a quarter of your daily need for phosphorous, which your body uses to process energy, and nearly 60 percent of your body’s need for vitamin B12, a nutrient that helps keep nerves and blood cells healthy.

But yogurt has a slight edge in terms of calcium and sodium. You get about 10 percent of your daily calcium requirement in a half-cup of full-fat cottage cheese, compared with 17 percent in whole-milk Greek yogurt. And salt is added to preserve cottage cheese because it's high in moisture, says Tonya Schoenfuss, Ph.D., an associate professor of dairy products technology at the University of Minnesota. Cottage cheese brands tend to have 300 to 400 mg of sodium per half-cup, though some have more. The daily sodium recommendation is less than 2,300 mg.

Some companies boast that their cottage cheese contains “live and active cultures.” That can be a benefit, because probiotic bacteria are good for your digestive tract. But check the labels: While these bacteria are necessary to turn milk into yogurt, you don’t need them to make cottage cheese, so not all brands have them. By choosing a cottage cheese with live cultures, you get the same gut health benefits as yogurt.  

Full Fat vs. Low Fat

As with yogurt, you can find low-fat and nonfat versions of cottage cheese. Lower-fat varieties save you a few calories, which may be beneficial if you’re looking to lose weight, says Petitpain. The difference between nonfat and full-fat cottage cheese is about 30 calories per half-cup; the low-fat or 2 percent options have about 20 fewer calories.

The savings in fat are similarly small, with low-fat (2 percent) cottage cheese supplying 2.6 grams (1.4 grams of saturated) per half-cup. And although keeping overall saturated fat intake low is beneficial for health, some research suggests that full-fat dairy products might not raise the risk of heart disease, possibly because of the nutrients or the type of saturated fat they contain.  

The downside to lower-fat products? They’re likely to have added thickeners like carrageenan and guar gum, Schoenfuss says. Some full-fat cottage cheese contains these additives as well, however, so read all labels to be sure of what you’re getting.

Think Beyond the Melon Bowl

What gives cottage cheese its reputation as a humble food also helps to make it a nutritious one. “A single ingredient food doesn’t have much opportunity to reinvent itself to become sexy,” says Petitpain. “But the health benefit comes in the simplicity itself.” Its unglamorous image probably helps to keep the cost down. While prices vary widely depending on the product, most store brands won’t run you more than 50 cents per serving.

It may have a mild flavor, but there’s lots you can do with cottage cheese to make it a little more interesting. Add it to smoothies; whisk it into scrambled eggs as you cook them for a boost of protein and a fluffy texture; make it the base of a savory bowl of chopped veggies and seasonings or chopped walnuts, olives, and black pepper; or mix it with tomato sauce for a snack that’s reminiscent of your favorite Italian comfort food. Or go retro with a bowl of cottage cheese and fruit. As far as healthy eating is concerned, that never went out of style.