Recently published research on dairy consumption and cardiovascular disease has confirmed what proponents of quality cheese and dairy have believed for many years: Their favorite foods pose no direct risk of morbidity or mortality, and in fact may contribute to preventing heart disease.
A meta-analysis of scientific studies, conducted by scientists from the University of Reading in England, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Wageningen University in the Netherlands and published recently in the European Journal of Epidemiology, analyzed data from 29 studies that followed a combined 938,000 participants over a period of 35 years. It found no association between dairy foods and death from heart disease.
Ian Givens, Ph.D., professor of food chain nutrition at the University of Reading, was among the authors. When asked what advice the general public could draw from it, he told Wine Spectator, “Within normal range of [dairy] consumption, there is no evidence of an increase in risk of cardiovascular or coronary heart disease.” A similar meta-analysis, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association last May found that “milk and cheese consumption were inversely associated with stroke risk.”
(The research was partially-funded by three pro-dairy groups—Global Dairy Platform, Dairy Research Institute and Dairy Australia—but they had no influence over it, the authors wrote.)
For years, public health agencies have warned against consuming too much saturated fat, including dairy. A growing number of studies show that’s too simplistic, though neither the U.K.’s public health agency nor the American Heart Association have changed their guidelines. Meanwhile, milk consumption has been declining, which has led to other health problems like osteoporosis.
In September 2016, Givens was on a panel that proposed a more complex model. A summary, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last month questioned, “… whether the current dietary recommendations on dairy consumption have taken full account of the effects of whole foods or if they have relied on extrapolations of health effects of single nutrients.” It recommended further research on the dynamics of how the “dairy matrix” is digested and absorbed. Key factors such as fermentation (in cheese or yogurt) or degree of solidity (milk vs. yogurt vs. cheese) may indicate enhanced benefits.
Beyond affirming saturated fats as part of a healthy diet, there is mounting evidence that the kind of dairy we eat matters—cheese and dairy derived from naturally raised, grass-fed livestock and processed traditionally may not have the same health consequences as mass-produced cheese products. “No single food with a long history in the human diet is bad for us,” said Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why. “The problem is what we do to the foods. We strip the fats and fat-soluble vitamins from whole milk and yogurt. All the evidence is for natural saturated fats and against refined fats and trans fats.”
Nutritionists Oz Garcia and Charles Passler echo Planck’s advocacy. “You will be leaner and happier if you have healthy saturated fats in your diet,” said Garcia. Passler notes that weight gain often results from simple carbohydrates and sugars found in processed foods that raise blood sugar. Traditional cheese, on the other hand, has virtually no carbs and plenty of good fats and proteins: “It can be a buffer for weight gain versus calories from carbs and can also provide fuel to promote a healthy metabolism,” said Passler.
Fermented dairy foods, especially yogurt, are associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and can provide beneficial probiotics. The saturated fats in real cheese are believed to increase good cholesterol (HDL). A quarter pound of good farmhouse cheese delivers more than half the adult daily nutritional requirements of protein, fat, calcium and phosphorus. In addition, it contains the beneficial fatty acid CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which is believed to have anti-cancer and antioxidant properties.
Much research remains to be done on the potential benefits of dairy foods in a healthy diet. But for now, the evidence suggests you need not fear a well-made cheese. So go ahead and order that cheese plate.