Cheese is one of life’s greatest gifts — and greatest temptations. For some people, there’s nothing like biting into a creamy, soft cheese to turn their day around. But according to experts, eating some of these delicious cheeses can become hazardous to our health as we get older.
A recent web post for the Mayo Clinic outlined the types of cheeses, mostly soft and mold-ripened, that are dangerous for people with weaker immune systems. That means most people over 65 fit the description, but it can be hard to make such a big change. Dr. Tamika D. Sims, PhD, Senior Director, Food Technology Communications at the International Food Information Council, gave us the rundown on why it’s important to avoid foods that could cause health problems.
“As we age our immune systems tend to get weaker. This can yield immune responses to infections, including foodborne illness, that are not as robust as younger, healthy adults,” Dr. Sims says. “Infectious organisms are not only lurking in spoiled foods, they can also be associated with some cheese processing.”
What kinds of cheeses should people over 65 avoid?
The kinds of cheeses that are dangerous for older adults include soft cheeses from unpasteurized (raw) milk such as feta, brie, camembert, blue-veined, and queso fresco, according to Sims.
These are deemed “high risk” by the FDA as they’re more likely to cause a foodborne illness. Some of them are also mold-ripened, meaning they were aged with mold, which already includes the dangerous bacterias to avoid.
But there is one way to continue enjoying mold-ripened cheeses. According to the U.K.’s National Health Services, you can consume them safely if you cook them thoroughly.
“Thorough cooking should kill any bacteria in cheese, so it should be safe to eat cooked mold-ripened soft cheese,” their website states. Make sure the cheese is hot all the way through to make it safe to consume. Thankfully, this means a grilled cheese sandwich made with brie, or a pizza with feta on it, is still on the menu.
Why does risk increase for those over 65?
Foodborne illnesses can be difficult for people over 65 mainly because our bodies and organs change as we age, according to the FDA. One major change is that our digestive system starts holding food longer, giving bacteria time to grow. At the same time, the stomach acid needed to combat the bacteria typically declines with age.
Similarly, our kidneys and liver have a harder time getting rid of foreign bacteria and toxins. This, paired with the fact that our immune system starts to decline between 50 and 60, means that our bodies won’t be able to fight foodborne illness as effectively as it once did.
What cheeses are safer to eat?
All hope is not lost. Most cheeses found at your local grocery store are pasteurized. If you’re worried, Sims outlined the types of cheeses those over 65 can consume safely.
Hard and semisoft cheeses (like parmesan, cheddar, Colby, and Swiss), processed cheeses (like American cheese and spreads), cream cheese, mozzarella, and soft cheeses that are clearly labeled “made from pasteurized milk” are safer to eat, Sims said. These types are considered lower risk by the FDA.
In a nutshell, Sims recommends older adults and anyone with a weakened immune system stick to “refrigerated pasteurized cheese and other dairy products.” These are the ones you’d typically find at grocery stores. (Cheddar cheese is a good example.) You can always ask to double check whether a cheese you’re buying is pasteurized. Just pay careful attention in the fancy cheese aisle!