The Sodium to Potassium Ratio in Cheese: Clearly, a Non-Paleo Food

Introduction

As more and more people get into Paleo Diet lifestyles, a frequent question comes up – How do I know which foods are permitted and those which are not part of contemporary Paleo Diets?  The Paleo Diet movement has become so large and fractionated in recent years that many versions of “Paleo” have now arisen.   An interesting, but flawed adaptation of present day Paleo Diets frequently permit regular/daily consumption of dairy products (including cheese).

So how can you easily determine if any common modern day food mimics the nutritional characteristics of those foods our Stone Age ancestors would have consumed, and whether or not you should include or delete these contemporary foods from your menu? A near universal nutritional characteristic of junk and processed foods is that they contain added, mined salt (NaCl), a compound that was rarely or never present in Stone Age or preagricultural diets (1-9).  

Check out the labels on your foods – virtually every and all packaged and processed foods contain added salt. In fact, the typical U.S. diets contain 9.1 grams of salt per day (10).  Our ancestral dietary intakes of salt were about 1/6th (1.5 grams) to 1/10th (0.91 grams) this level (1-8, 11) and sometimes lower still (12).  Governmental agencies require manufacturers of canned, processed or packaged foods to reveal the sodium content of their food products, but this information doesn’t necessarily tell us the entire story.   

Sodium in food almost always comes from added salt, a compound containing not just sodium (Na+), but also chloride (Cl).  If you want to find out how much salt has been added to a canned, packaged or processed food, multiply the sodium content by 2.54 (the molecular weight of Cl is 35.45 and that of Na+ is 22.98 and the ratio of Cl to Na+ is 2.54), this calculation will give you the total salt (NaCl) content in the food.  It’s not just the sodium content of a food which is harmful to our bodies, but also the chloride content (13-16), and since nearly all excess sodium in our diet comes from salt added to food (1, 8) anytime you have a high sodium intake, you also will have a high chloride intake.

One nearly universal characteristic of fresh, natural, unsalted foods is that they contain high concentrations of potassium (K+) and low concentrations of sodium (Na+) (1, 7, 8, 11, 17).  Our research group has recently completed an extensive compilation of the K+ and Na+ concentrations found in more than 1200 wild and domesticated unsalted foods from all food groups (18).  From our results, you can easily see that consuming only natural, unsalted foods, it is implausible or impossible to eat > 2,400 mg Na+/day for adult men and women.  Further, consumption of natural, unsalted foods show that it is virtually impossible to eat a K+/Na+ ratio of less than 5.0.  Unfortunately, in the typical U.S. diet, we eat more Na+ (3,584 mg/day) than K+ (2795 mg/day) (10) yielding a daily K+/Na+ ratio of 0.77 which is 6.5 lower than the K+/Na+ ratio (5.00) that is normally obtained by only eating natural, unsalted foods (18).  

The scientific literature (based upon randomized controlled human trials [RCT] and epidemiological evidence) is nearly in universal agreement of their condemnation of high salt/low potassium diets (8, 10, 17, 19-26).  How is it that the Paleo community has missed this fundamental nutritional concept and still promotes cooking and recipes using sea salt or refined salt?  People Wake Up!

 

Cheese

One of the original “processed foods” which first appeared during the Neolithic (5,400 to 4,800 years ago) was cheese (27).  Cheese is not a “natural” food, but rather represents a complex, manufactured, processed food requiring multiple steps for its synthesis and production (27, 28).  These steps and procedures simply would have been beyond the technological capabilities of hunter gatherer societies.   

Some contemporary Paleo Dieters regularly include cheese in their nutritional repertoires because they believe that cheese is a wholesome and natural food with nutritional characteristics similar to foods our pre-agricultural ancestors consumed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I only examine a single nutritional characteristic of modern day cheeses – their high salt content – and show you why you should avoid them.  

Below is a list of the 14 bestselling cheeses in the U.S. and their respective share of the total U.S. cheese market along with their added salt content. 

Cheese Market Share (%) Added Salt
mg/100g cheese(28-30)
1. Mozerella 21% 1692
2. Cheddar 15% 1562
3. Parmesan 14% 4069
4. Monterey Jack 9% 1361
5. Swiss 8% 488
6. American (processed) 7% 3155
7. Blue 7% 3543
8. Provolone 5% 2225
9. Ricotta (part skim) 3% 318
10. Feta 3% 2835
11. Cream Cheese 2% 815
12. Goat (Semisoft) 2% 1308
13. Nacho (processed) 1% 2540
14. Asiago 1% 2540
15. Other 2%

 

Of all the cheese eating countries in the world, Greece ranks first with a per capita consumption of 68.5 pounds per year, followed by France with an annual per capita consumption of 57.5 pounds.  The U.S. ranks 15th world wide with a yearly per capita consumption of 32.6 pounds or 1.43 ounces (41 grams) per day.  From the graph below, you can see that over the past 43 years U.S. cheese consumption has increased more than any other dairy product.

The table below alphabetically lists the salt content of 26 other cheeses commonly consumed worldwide

Cheese Added Salt
mg/100g cheese (28-30)
Brick 1422
Brie 1598
Camembert 2139
Cheshire 1778
Colby 1534
Cottage 2% fat 838
Edam 2451
Fontina 2032
Gorgonzola 3447
Gouda 2080
Gruyere 853
Havarti 1524
Jarlsberg Swiss 1163
Kasseri 2540
Limburger 2032
Muenster 1595
Neufchatel 848
Port du Salut 1356
Queso Anejo 2873
Queso Asadero 1664
Queso Banco 3810
Queso Chihuahua 1567
Queso Fresco 335
Romano 3048
Roquefort 4595
Tilsit 1913

 

Finally, the table below ranks the Na+ content for 40 cheeses from highest to lowest, their potassium (K+) concentrations and their K+ to Na+ ratios, and then contrasts these values to fresh, unsalted milk.  

Cheese Type Na+(mg)/

1000 kcal

K+ (mg)/

1000 kcal

K+/Na+ ratio/mg per mg
Roquefort Cheese 4902 247 0.05
Feta Cheese 4227 235 0.06
Blue Cheese 3952 725 0.18
Cottage Cheese 3837 977 0.25
Parmesan Cheese 3548 290 0.08
Romano Cheese 3101 222 0.07
Mexican cheese (Questo Anejo) 3032 233 0.08
Camembert Cheese 2807 623 0.22
Edam Cheese 2703 527 0.19
Provolone Cheese 2496 393 0.16
Limburger Cheese 2446 391 0.16
Mozzarella Cheese 2437 331 0.14
Gouda Cheese 2301 340 0.15
Tilsit Cheese 2216 191 0.09
Fontina Cheese 2057 165 0.08
Brie Cheese 1883 455 0.24
Caraway Cheese 1862 250 0.13
Mexican cheese (Questo Asadero) 1840 242 0.13
Cheshire Cheese 1809 246 0.14
Muenster Cheese 1708 364 0.21
Mexican cheese (Questo Chihuahua) 1650 139 0.08
Calzone Cheese 1543 343 0.22
Cheddar Cheese 1541 243 0.16
Colby Cheese 1533 322 0.21
Port du Salut Cheese 1517 386 0.25
Monterey Jack Cheese 1437 217 0.15
Neufchatel Cheese 1320 601 0.46
Cream Cheese 939 404 0.43
Ricotta Cheese 906 906 1.00
Gruyere Cheese 814 196 0.24
Goat Cheese (hard) 765 106 0.14
Swiss Cheese 505 203 0.40
Emmentaler Cheese 505 203 0.40
Mean = 2125 355 0.21
Milk   Na+ (mg)/ 1000 kcal K+ (mg)/ 1000 kcal K+/Na+ Ratio
Milk, cows 3.3 % fat 705 2164 3.07
Sheep milk 407 1269 3.11
Milk, goat 725 2957 4.08
Mean = 612 2130 3.42

[Alternate Version]

It is obvious that all cheeses contain much more Na+ than K+ (on average 16 times more Na+ than K+) compared to their unadulterated, non-salted milk pre-cursors).  Clearly, these K+/Na+ ratios in cheeses lie far beyond the evolutionary normative values which conditioned our species’ genome (1-8, 10-12, 17, 18).  Accordingly, it is not surprising that randomized controlled trials of salt consumption in humans as well as epidemiological studies (19-26) support the notion that added salt (be it sea salt or refined salt) from cheese or any other processed food, promotes cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmunity, chronic inflammation, immune system dysfunction and ill health (19-26, 31-57). People Wake Up!

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About Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor Emeritus

Loren Cordain, PhD, Professor EmeritusDr. Loren Cordain is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. His research emphasis over the past 20 years has focused upon the evolutionary and anthropological basis for diet, health and well being in modern humans. Dr. Cordain’s scientific publications have examined the nutritional characteristics of worldwide hunter-gatherer diets as well as the nutrient composition of wild plant and animal foods consumed by foraging humans. He is the world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets and has lectured extensively on the Paleolithic nutrition worldwide. Dr. Cordain is the author of six popular bestselling books including The Real Paleo Diet Cookbook, The Paleo Diet, The Paleo Answer, and The Paleo Diet Cookbook, summarizing his research findings.

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“1” Comments

  1. Salt in cheese makes cheese a bad choice? Hmm, I’m unconvinced.

    The preserved nature of cheese comes from a number of factors including – the acidic environment created by the activity of lactobacillus bacteria, a strong microbial ecology which out-competes pathogenic invasion, dehydration by the separation of whey from solids by the action of a coagulating factor such as rennet, the presence of surface molds, and the anti-bacterial nature of salt.

    The salt also has a desiccating effect, reducing the moisture content of the cheese. Depending on the type of cheese, salt is either added into the paste as the curds are forming (e.g. cheddar) or are applied to the surface either directly or by immersion in brine. Incorporating into the curds produces a drier cheese with a longer life. Brining the cheese produces a softer cheese with a rind.

    Despite the saline environment within the cheese, microbial activity continues. The skill of the affineur is to manage the aging environment (temperature, humidity, surface treatments etc) to guide that activity through to maturity. The end product is therefore still a ‘live’ product.

    An excellent page on salting cheese is here: https://www.cheesescience.org/salting.html

    Finally, consider the other beneficial aspects of high quality, traditional cheeses. Alpage cheeses like traditional Gruyere is produced from cows browsing high mountain pastures where the herbs, flowers and grasses produce exquisitely nutritious fodder which in turn produces milk with complex micronutrient profiles. Cheese-making allows these nutrients to be transported and made available to all. These cheeses are produced from non-pasteurised milk by backslopping the natural cultures which accumulate in the milk and the local environment, producing a vibrant, healthy microbial ecology.
    And an aged Gouda is reputed to be one of the highest sources of vitamin K2, presumably because of action of the bacterial strains used specifically in the production.

    Of course using salt within a fermented product is not unique to cheese making, so surely this article would apply equally to other fermented products such as sauerkraut.

    As recently published in Nature, salt significantly impacts the floral composition of the gut microbiome and may contribute to issues such as hypertension. The proposed remedy? Each more fermented products such as sauerkraut and yoghurt.

    Perhaps the issue with cheese is not the salt content but is rather the modern version of cheese – non-diverse single-strain cultures and feedlot milk. A world apart from natural ferment artisan cheese.

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