What are the most popular cheeses in the world? Take a world tour of cheese consumption by country, and learn about the most popular cheese in America.
Cheese has been around for some 4,000 years. The oldest evidence comes from ancient Switzerland, while one legend places its origin in the Middle East. Supposedly an Arab merchant made it by accident when he prepared for a journey across the desert by putting a supply of milk in a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. The natural rennet from the stomach lining, combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate and curdle. When he reached his destination, the curds had a fabulous flavor, and the watery whey satisfied his thirst. While whey protein drinks would take awhile to catch on, cheese became an instant hit and an important food in much of the world.
So where is cheese popular, and which cheeses are preferred? We’ll take you on a world tour of cheese consumption by country, and learn about the most popular cheese in America, and the most popular cheeses in the world.
Cheese Consumption by Country
Whether cheesemaking started in the mountains of western Europe or got there via trade routes from the Arab world, Europe is certainly where it took hold and flourished. A big reason for this—and a reason you don’t find cheese in many regions—is genetic.
Most of the world’s population is lactose intolerant; once children stop breastfeeding, their bodies reduce production of the lactase necessary for digesting milk. But because of varying protein sources in different regions of the world, indigenous peoples learned to adapt. While 95% of Caucasians are lactase retentive and continue to properly digest dairy, the figure drops to 50% for people of African descent and only about 5% of east Asians. This is why you almost never find milk or cheese in Asian food, and why cheese consumption by country varies so widely.
According to a report by the International Dairy Federation, the top 10 countries for cheese consumption per capita (in 2014) are:
- France – 57.9 pounds per year
- Germany – 53.2 pounds per year
- Luxembourg – 53.2 pounds per year
- Iceland – 53.2 pounds per year
- Greece – 51.5 pounds per year
- Finland – 49.5 pounds per year
- Italy – 48 pounds per year
- Switzerland – 48 pounds per year
- Estonia – 45.8 pounds per year
- Netherlands – 42.7 pounds per year
Not surprisingly, each and every one of those countries falls squarely in that European sweet spot for lactose tolerance. France, in particular, is known for producing the most varieties of cheese (and for staying slim while eating a lot of it)…but what, no United States?
Even though the U.S. produces the most cheese in the world, it falls outside the top 10 in per-capita consumption at 34.1 pounds per year. That’s less than Austria, Sweden, Cyprus, Norway…even Israel. And Great Britain, ancestral home of Cheddar, produces more varieties of cheese per capita than any other country but only consumes 25.7 pounds per capita annually.
Now, of course, the United States is much larger than those European countries, and certainly consumes the most cheese as a nation. According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the U.S. leads the world in cheese production at 11.1 billion pounds, followed by Germany at 4.81 billion, France at 4.27 billion, and Italy at 2.55 billion.
The leading state in the U.S. for cheese production is Wisconsin. If the state of Wisconsin were a country, it would rank fourth in the world in terms of total cheese production at 2.86 billion pounds, behind the remaining U.S., Germany and France, and just ahead of Italy.
The Most Popular Cheeses in the World
In the parts of the world where cheese is made, you will find different types favored in different regions. In the Mediterranean and Middle East, where preservation was a challenge in the hotter climate, cheese was made by heavily salting the curds, which is why feta is the most famous cheese from Greece. In the cooler parts of Europe (the Alps and north), where caves and ice provided refrigeration, a variety of fresher cheeses (like Gouda or Havarti) could be enjoyed. Naturally, when European immigrants came to America they brought their native preferences with them.
Let’s count down the top cheese-producing countries, with the most popular cheese in each (we’ll put Wisconsin back with the rest of the U.S. where it belongs; the favorite cheese is still the same, anyway).
There are many varieties of grana (hard cheeses used for grating), but the “king of cheeses” is the one named for the cities of Parma and Reggio in the Emilia-Romagna region. There is really no better in the world.
This soft, buttery cheese is creamy and spreadable at room temperature. It is almost identical to Brie, but comes from a different region of France (Normandy) and is typically made in smaller wheels. Both have a white, bloomy rind and rich, earthy mushroom flavor that gets stronger with age.
Germany: Allgäu Emmental
Also known as “Bavarian Swiss”, this Alpine-style cheese is Germany’s version of Switzerland’s Emmentaler. It’s a semi-hard cheese with distinctive holes, or “eyes”, and a buttery, nutty, full flavor.
The Most Popular Cheese in America
The United States, being a nation of immigrants, can’t really claim a truly indigenous cheese. (Native Americans had no dairy in their diet.) While there are original American cheeses, they are all based on European recipes and techniques adapted to local resources and tastes.
Because of the British colonial influence, the first cheeses made in the U.S. were all Cheddar cheese. Swiss immigrants in the mid-1800s introduced traditional Emmentaler and later developed other Swiss-style cheeses, and Germans, Italians and other Europeans followed suit, spreading these traditions through the Eastern and Midwestern states.
Meanwhile, in the American Southwest, Hispanic-style cheeses gained popularity. These cheeses originated with the Spanish colonists, who intermixed with the indigenous population and let their cheesemaking evolve accordingly. Rather than adhering strictly to the original European recipes, cheeses like Oaxaca, queso blanco and Chihuahua are unique New World creations.
According to a report by the International Dairy Foods Association, Americans consume more Italian-style cheeses than other types, followed by American-style cheeses. (This includes Cheddar.) Americans are also eating increasingly more natural cheeses and less processed cheese.
As our demographics change, Swiss cheese consumption is declining as Hispanic cheese consumption continues to rise. But Italian-style and Cheddar cheeses are steadily increasing in popularity. The Italian-style cheeses lead mostly because of the copious amounts of mozzarella smothering American pizza, while the clear champion for everyday eating is Cheddar.
Wisconsin, as previously noted, leads the U.S. in Cheddar production…and in fact, makes almost as much as does the entire United Kingdom. In fact, if you want to take a world tour of the most popular cheeses, you can pretty much do it all with domestic cheeses instead of trying to track down all the originals noted above. Start with an award-winning Wisconsin Parmesan, ease into a smooth, creamy Brie, savor a nutty, buttery Swiss cheese descended from the famous Emmentalers, and finish with a razor-sharp Wisconsin Cheddar cheese.