The One Cheese Gut Health Experts Want You to Eat More Often

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Experts talked to us about the lesser-known cheese, labneh, that's full of good-for-you probiotics.
Image Credit: Yana Margulis Rubin/iStock/GettyImages

Head to any Middle Eastern restaurant and you'll likely find labneh listed in the mezze section of the menu, somewhere near the hummus. The creamy spread is a culinary staple in countries like Lebanon and Israel. It also happens to be one of the healthiest cheeses around.

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Yes, cheese can be nutritious. "Dairy gets a bad rap, especially when it comes to gut health," says Jessie Wong, RD, a registered dietitian at Joy Nutrition Consulting. "There's a lot of misinformation out there about dairy being inflammatory when we know that long-term epidemiological studies have found it's actually [linked to a] reduced risk for osteoporosis, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes."

Below, gut health experts explain what labneh is, how it's made and why you should eat it more often for a healthy gut microbiome.

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What Is Labneh?

Labneh is a fermented dairy product that takes on a spreadable, cheese-like consistency thanks to the way it's made.

Sometimes called "yogurt cheese," labneh tastes tangy much like traditional yogurt but is significantly thicker in texture due to the fact that it's strained over a long period of time.

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How Is Labneh Made?

Labneh can be made from many types of yogurt, including kefir, a fermented milk that doubles as drinkable yogurt.

Before we learn how labneh's made, it's important to understand how its base, kefir, is produced.

Traditionally, kefir is made simply by combining kefir grains with milk. Confusingly, kefir grains aren't actually grains at all. Rather, kefir grains are a white, curd-like substance that's naturally flush with a diverse mix of good bacteria and yeast. The microorganisms in kefir grains act as fermentation agents, or a starter culture.

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The process of fermenting the kefir grains and milk typically takes about 24 hours. The final product is probiotic-rich kefir.

"Kefir contains dozens of species of beneficial microbes, including bacteria and yeast mostly from the Lactobacillus and Saccharomyces genuses," says Colleen Webb, RD, a registered dietitian and gut health nutrition expert.

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These days, commercial kefir products typically utilize industrial starter cultures to produce kefir, rather than the kefir grains themselves, according to an October 2021 review in ‌Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.

OK, back to labneh. While many types of yogurt can be used to make labneh, whole milk kefir is an optimal base because of its natural probiotic properties. And making labneh from kefir is quite simple — all it takes is combining whole milk kefir and salt and then allowing the mixture to strain through a cheesecloth for about a day.

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When all of the liquid has been strained out, the curds left behind in the cheesecloth take on a thick, spreadable consistency. Enter: Labneh, aka kefir cheese.

Tip

Labneh can be made from any whole milk yogurt ‌other than‌ Greek yogurt, which is already strained and therefore won’t drain properly.

Labneh Nutrition Facts

A 1/4 cup of labneh contains the following, according to the USDA:

  • Calories:‌ 90
  • Total fat:‌ 6 g
    • Saturated fat:‌ 4 g
  • Sodium:‌ 160 mg
  • Total carbs:‌ 4 g
  • Protein:‌ 6 g
  • Vitamin A:‌ 20% Daily Value (DV)
  • Calcium:‌ 9% DV

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Health Benefits of Labneh

Labneh delivers many of the same benefits as yogurt or cheese. But experts say labneh has a nutritional edge — here's why.

1. It’s a Source of Protein

Just like Greek yogurt and Icelandic skyr are heavily strained and therefore higher in protein, so too is labneh. A 1/4 cup of labneh has 6 grams of protein while a 1/2 cup serves up about 12 grams of protein, per the USDA.

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Friendly reminder: Protein is critical for building and maintaining muscle mass, keeping our immune systems strong and promoting satiety.

2. It’s Low in Lactose

Kefir is low in lactose thanks to its conversion into lactic acid during the fermentation process, per an October 2014 study in Food Science and Technology.

"Labneh is very low in lactose, so most people with a lactose intolerance can tolerate labneh without issue," Webb says. "It's a great option for those who struggle to eat softer cheeses, which usually are higher in lactose."

Tip

The lactose in yogurts tends to be better tolerated than the lactose in other dairy products, like milk. That's because the good bacteria in yogurt help break down sugars (such as lactose) so that they're more easily digested in the body, per a May 2014 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

3. It Can Be a Great Source of Probiotics

Unlike other cheeses like cheddar or brie, kefir cheese offers up gut-friendly probiotics. Just make sure the labneh label says it contains live and active cultures.

"One of the things that's so amazing about biology is the fact that we are not alone," says Bruce Hirsch, MD, a gut health expert, infectious disease doctor at Northwell Health and member of the Peggy Lillis Foundation's scientific advisory board. "The human body is a community of organisms and our relationship with the other life forms that exist within our body is extremely important."

Dr. Hirsch says he encourages people to think about the body as its very own ecosystem. "Living with healthy germs both in and on us is an extremely important component of wellbeing," he says. And the foods we eat can help those beneficial bugs thrive.

"Kefir has been shown to positively influence the balance of the gut microbiota, which has the potential to improve GI transit time, strengthen the gut barrier function and reduce inflammation," Webb says. "More specifically, research suggests it might reduce constipation and help to eradicate H. pylori infection."

Taking a Probiotic Supplement vs. Eating Probiotic Foods

“Probiotic-rich foods offer much more than just probiotics,” Webb says. “Many of them provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, prebiotics, post-biotics and other nutrients that are important for human health.”

Dr. Hirsch agrees. “I prefer natural fermented foods like kefir and sauerkraut because they bring a community of probiotics into the system rather than just a single preparation [or strain].”

Yet sometimes a more specific approach ‌is‌ warranted. “The clinical benefits of probiotics depend on many factors, including the species and strain of the probiotic,” Webb adds. “If you’re looking to treat a specific condition — such as antibiotic-associated diarrhea — then you’ll want to identify a probiotic [supplement] with the specific strains proven to help your cause.”

4. It Provides Important Micronutrients

"Dairy [in general] contains a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, B vitamins, calcium, potassium and phosphorus, all of which are beneficial to health," Wong says.

A 1/4 cup of labneh delivers almost 20 percent of our daily vitamin A needs and nearly 10 percent of our daily calcium needs, per the USDA.

How to Enjoy Labneh

"Labneh is a creamier, tangier and thicker alternative to yogurt, sour cream and cream cheese, so it's a terrific base for a savory dip or spread to serve with pita and vegetables or even on a bagel," Webb says.

Here are a few more ways to enjoy labneh:

  • Swap your usual yogurt for labneh. Pair it with fresh fruit, honey and walnuts for a Mediterranean-inspired breakfast
  • Spread it on toast with olive oil and za'atar for a savory snack
  • Add a dollop to a healthy grain bowl or shakshuka for a tangy topping
  • Blend it into smoothies for a boost of creamy protein
  • Use it as a spread on sandwiches or in wraps
  • Eat it with crackers for a balanced snack
  • Use it to marinate proteins like chicken for kebabs

Labneh and Kefir Brands to Try

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