Keep this info in mind next time you go to schmear cream cheese on your bagel.

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As a nutritionist, I find that many people are confused about the healthfulness of cream cheese. Some think of it as a decadent splurge, while others view it as beneficial in the same way they regard Greek yogurt as a healthful option. If you're a fan of cream cheese, here's some info about how the spread or dip may impact your health—and why I'm excited that plant-based versions exist.

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Credit: Getty Images

Cream cheese nutrition facts

The ingredients in standard commercial cream cheese are simply pasteurized milk and cream, salt, carob bean gum, and cheese culture. A 1-ounce portion provides 99 calories, 1.74 grams of protein, 9.75 grams of fat (5.73 grams as saturated fat), and 1.56 grams of carbohydrate, according to the US Department of Agriculture database. Cream cheese isn't particularly nutrient-rich, but this same-sized portion does contain 7% of the daily value for vitamin A, which supports immune function, vision, and bone health, as well as smaller amounts of calcium (3%), B vitamins, iron, and magnesium (1% each).

Full-fat dairy and heart disease

Regular cream cheese is considered a full-fat dairy product, meaning none of the fat content has been removed. A Harvard study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the relationship between the intake of dairy fat, including full-fat dairy, and cardiovascular risks. Researchers followed over 200,000 men and women and found that full-fat dairy products like cream cheese were not linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), heart disease, or stroke. However, the researchers found that replacing dairy fat with polyunsaturated fat (which is found in nuts and seeds) or high-quality carbohydrates from whole grains did lower the risk of CVD by 24% and 28%, respectively. This led researchers to conclude that while full-fat dairy may not necessarily raise heart disease risk, it's not optimal, as other options may better guard heart health.

Lower fat cream cheese

If you're wondering if lower fat cream cheese is a healthier choice than regular cream cheese, here's the lowdown. In a 2017 report, the American Heart Association stated that a reduction in total fat (for instance, eating a low-fat diet) is not recommended as part of an effort to lower CVD risk. At the same time, the group strongly concluded that reducing the intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fat will reduce CVD incidence. In other words, simply using lower fat cream cheese may not be as beneficial as replacing saturated fat calories with those from plant fat, such as avocado or nuts. One way to do that if you enjoy cream cheese is to combine a lower fat version with other plant fat foods. For example, you might use lower fat cream cheese in a layered dip that also includes guacamole, or in a dip that contains chopped walnuts.

Lower fat cream cheese, including Neufchâtel, is widely available. A 1-ounce portion provides about 72 calories, 2.59 grams of protein, 6.46 grams of fat (3.63 grams as saturated fat), and 1 gram of carbohydrate. The ingredients in commercial Neufchâtel are pasteurized milk, cream, and salt but with more gums (xanthan, carob bean, and guar gums) and cheese culture.

Plant-based cream cheese

Another simple way to replace saturated with unsaturated fat is to opt for nut-based cream cheese, such as Kite Hill Plain Almond Milk Cream Cheese Style Spread ($6, amazon.com). Made primarily from almonds, a 2-tablespoon portion provides 70 calories, 2 grams of protein, 6 grams of fat (with 0 grams as saturated fat), and 2 grams of carbohydrate with 1 gram as fiber. The flavor and texture are similar to traditional cream cheese, and it can be used in similar recipes—from nut rolled cheese balls to no bake cheesecake—in a one-to-one ratio.

Healthy ways to use cream cheese

Regardless of which type of cream cheese you use, the healthiest way to incorporate it is to combine it with whole, nutrient-rich foods, including veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and pulses (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas). Spread it on whole grain bread at breakfast, topped with bagel seasoning and veggies, such as sliced tomato, cucumber, red onion, and spinach. Season plain cream cheese with a touch of maple syrup, cinnamon, and fresh grated ginger as a dip for fresh fruit. Fold in savory seasonings, like garlic and herbs or pico de gallo, and scoop up with fresh veggies like red bell pepper strips, carrots, celery, and cucumber. Add in seasonings and nutritional yeast, form into balls, and roll them in chopped nuts or seeds, like chia or sesame, served with whole grain crackers. Spread corn tortillas with cream cheese and fill with black beans, salsa, avocado, and shredded cabbage. Or enjoy cream cheese in desserts that incorporate healthful add-ins, such as pumpkin cheesecake or mini fruit tarts.

Bottom line

Regular dairy-based cream cheese may not be the most healthful option, but some people simply prefer it. If that's you, enjoy your cream cheese as part of a diet that's proportionally higher in whole plant fats, such as avocado, olives, and nuts. And pair it with naturally nutrient-rich unprocessed foods to create balance.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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