While cheese can be made from the milk of goats, sheep, and other animals, the discussion in this webpage refers to full-fat cheese made from cow's milk, unless otherwise stated. Cheese is a rich dietary source of calcium and saturated fat, and a significant source of cholesterol. Full-fat cheese has an unfavorable breast cancer risk profile, whereas some low-fat cheese does not.
Cheese is also a good source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), riboflavin (vitamin B2), stearate, and zinc, and also incorporates iodine, selenium and vitamin B12.
Cheese appears to reduce the risks of colon, stomach and pancreatic cancer, although not all studies are in agreement. On the other hand, cheese has been linked to increased risks of developing bladder, testicular, prostate, ovarian, and thyroid cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma in some, but not all, studies that have examined the associations. In addition, cheese consumption has been found to increase the risk of new skin cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) among people with previous skin cancer.

Breast cancer-related effects of eating cheese

Cheese incorporates both anti-cancer and cancer-promoting compounds with respect to breast cancer. In this section, we briefly list these and describe their effects. We then examine the epidemiological evidence concerning cheese itself.

Anti-breast cancer cheese components

As noted above, cheese is an excellent source of calcium and a good source of CLA, both of which have some anti-breast cancer effects. In addition, most cheese is fermented, which means that it might share some of the favorable characteristics of yogurt and kefir, both of which have chemopreventive properties with respect to breast cancer.

Calcium and breast cancer

While several studies have reported an inverse association between calcium intake and risk of breast cancer, not all studies are in agreement. Low calcium intake is associated with increased breast density, a strong breast cancer risk factor. Calcium has been shown to have antiproliferative effects on breast cancer cells in the laboratory and to inhibit the development of mammary tumors in mice. However, more than one study has reported that relatively high levels of calcium in benign breast tissue is associated with a modest increase in breast cancer risk.
The link between calcium and breast cancer may be obscured by the fact that levels of calcium in the blood of breast cancer patients can be elevated due to effects of breast tumors on calcium homeostasis. Also, some women at high risk for breast cancer have subclinical hyperparathyroidism (high circulating parathyroid hormone), which elevates calcium levels. In fact, both increases and reductions of cellular calcium levels appear to have the potential to increase the malignancy of a cell, depending on a variety of circumstances. For example, ongoing hypercalcemia (high circulating calcium) can induce changes in breast cancer cells that promote metastasis to high calcium microenvironments.
Nevertheless, based on the population studies described below and some earlier studies, moderate to moderately high dietary intake of calcium, especially in childhood and young adulthood, does not appear to promote breast cancer and might be protective against it:
  • A 2021 meta-analysis of data from previous studies concluded that adult calcium consumption was unlikely to be associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. Furthermore, higher cottage or ricotta cheese consumption was associated with lower risk of ER- breast cancer.
  • A 2021 Spanish prospective study found an L-shaped association between total calcium intake and breast cancer risk. Moderate calcium intake was linked to lower breast cancer risk overall and among postmenopausal women, but not among premenopausal women.
  • A 2020 study of African-American women reported that calcium intake was not associated with risk of breast cancer.
  • A 2016 large Swedish prospective study and an accompanying meta-analysis of data from previous studies found a protective effect of serum calcium against breast cancer.
  • A major 2013 European prospective study found no association between dietary calcium intake and breast cancer risk.
  • A 2013 study of ethnic Chinese women in Singapore found that calcium intake was not associated with risk of breast cancer. The authors point out that vegetables rather than dairy foods are the primary source of calcium in this population.
  • A large 2009 U.S. prospective study reported that total calcium intake was not linearly associated with total cancer incidence for women: the risk decreased up to approximately 1,300 mg of calcium per day, after which no further risk reduction was gained by consuming more calcium.
  • A 2007 French prospective study found that calcium intake was associated with lower risk of breast cancer, especially among premenopausal women.
Note that use of supplemental calcium has not been found to be associated with reduced breast cancer risk.

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and breast cancer

CLA has been found to inhibit breast cancer in the laboratory at concentrations equivalent to human consumption levels. Several population studies have been performed specifically to evaluate the possible association between consumption of CLA in cheese and other dairy products and the risk of breast cancer. The study results have been contradictory, possibly in part because the CLA content of cheese can vary greatly depending on the type of cheese, type of cattle feed, length of cheese aging and other factors.
For example, a Finnish study of women who already had breast cancer found that dietary CLA and levels of CLA in the blood were significantly lower in the postmenopausal breast cancer cases than in the postmenopausal controls without cancer. However, a large prospective Netherlands population study found a weak positive association between CLA intake and the risk breast cancer (i.e., the association was in the opposite direction expected if CLA was protective) and concluded that the apparent anticarcinogenic properties of CLA in animal and tissue culture models had not been confirmed in humans.

Breast cancer-promoting cheese components

Cheese has an unfavorable fat profile

Cheese is a source of several types of saturated fat, as well as cholesterol, all of which have been found to be associated with increased breast cancer risk. For example, cheese incorporates myristic acid, a saturated fat that has been linked to increased breast cancer risk in epidemiological studies. Intake of animal fats has been found to be associated in several studies to increased breast density, a risk factor for breast cancer and its recurrence. In addition, high cholesterol has been shown to promote metastasis in an animal model of breast cancer.

Milk production methods might contribute harmful compounds

Most of the milk used to make cheese is produced from pregnant cows, in which estrogen and progesterone levels are markedly elevated, although the effect on breast cancer risk is not clear. Other components of cheese influenced by milk production methods that are suspected to be breast cancer promoting include recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Purchasing organic cheese would reduce exposure to some of them. Cheese concentrates some of the potentially harmful substances found in milk (which has far higher water content).

Human studies

Since cheese incorporates both potentially beneficial and harmful compounds, it makes sense to look to the actual effects of milk consumption to determine whether it prevents or promotes breast cancer and its progression. Although some population-based studies have reported that cheese is not associated with breast cancer risk or its recurrence, on balance there is enough evidence to caution against consuming most full-fat cheese.
  • A major 2023 prospective study reported that adolescent and lifetime cheese intake was inversely associated with breast cancer risk. The negative association appeared stronger for ER- and luminal B (adolescent intake only) subtypes.
  • A 2021 meta-analysis of data from previous studies with a total of 1,019,232 participants reported that high-fat dairy was associated with increased breast cancer risk in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women, whereas low-fat dairy products appeared to protect premenopausal women.
  • Another 2021 meta-analysis found that cheese intake was not associated with breast cancer risk overall. However, higher cottage and/or ricotta cheese consumption was found to be associated with lower risk of ER- breast cancer.
  • A 2020 North American prospective study of 52,795 initially cancer-free women who were followed for 7.9 years reported no significant associations between cheese and breast cancer risk.
  • A 2019 Danish study reported that high cheese consumption was associated with higher rates of relapse in women with breast cancer.
  • A 2019 prospective study that included 52,795 women in the Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2) cohort found no association between cheese intake and breast cancer risk.
  • A 2018 U.S. study reported that higher intakes of American, cheddar, and cream cheese were associated with a marginally significant increased risk of breast cancer.

Best cheese for those with breast cancer

In addition to low-fat cheese, cottage cheese, fresh cheese, and ricotta cheese have been reported to be associated with lower risk of breast cancer in at least one study. Below, we rank common full-fat cheeses from highest to lowest approximate saturated fat content by weight. Based on existing studies, the highest fat group appears to be more likely to contribute to risk of breast cancer and its recurrence than the lowest fat group.
Greater than 5g saturated fat per ounce
  • 1. Mascarpone
  • 2. Colby
  • 3. Colby Jack
  • 4. Cream cheese
  • 5. Cheddar
  • 6. Muenster
  • 7. Fontina
  • 8. Monterey Jack
  • 9. Pepper Jack
  • 10. Havarti
  • 11. Queso Chihuahua
  • 12. Blue cheese
  • 13. Gruyere
  • 14. Jarlsberg
  • 15. Swiss
4g to 5g saturated fat per ounce
  • 16. Edam
  • 17. Gouda
  • 18. Brie
  • 19. Romano
  • 20. Provolone
  • 21. Tilsit
  • 22. Parmesan
  • 23. Camembert
  • 24. Velveeta
0.5g to 4g saturated fat per ounce
  • 25. Mozarella - 3.7 g/oz.
  • 26. Ricotta - 2.4 g/oz.
  • 27. Cottage - 0.5 g/oz.
While we do not recommend full-fat cheese, modest amounts consumed infrequently might not be harmful. Based on the available evidence, the best choices appear to be organic cottage or ricotta cheese (or else choose low-fat cheese).

Additional comments

Since calcium and vitamin D both have been shown to be very significant in protecting against several cancers, and since cheese is a major source of both in the typical American diet, it is important that those who start to decrease their overall consumption of cheese add new sources of calcium and vitamin D.

Sources of information provided in this webpage

The information above, which is updated continually as new research becomes available, has been developed based solely on the results of academic studies. Clicking on any of the underlined terms will take you to its tag or webpage, which contain more extensive information.
Below are links to 20 recent studies concerning this food and its components. For a more complete list of studies, please click on cheese.