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Dairy Nutrition

Cheese, dairy may boost immunity

Tammy Anderson-Wise

Tammy Anderson-Wise, CEO of Dairy Council of California, is a guest columnist for Cheese Market News®.

Staying healthy is a top priority for many Americans as the cold and flu season approaches and the number of COVID-19 cases throughout the country continues to rise. This concern translates into a shift in consumer purchasing behavior as shoppers increasingly look for foods associated with health benefits such as immune-boosting properties. This focus on staying healthy creates an opportunity to talk about the link between nutrition, gut health and immunity — and that is good news for producers and processors of cheese and other dairy foods.

Research suggests that cheese, yogurt and other dairy foods, when consumed as part of a healthy eating pattern, may have the potential to boost people’s immunity. While no single food or diet can prevent illness, dairy foods are nutritious, high-quality foods that provide essential nutrients — including vitamins A and D, zinc and protein — to support immune function and gut health, which play a role in supporting a healthy immune system.

Specifically:

• Vitamin A supports the tissues of the gastrointestinal tract and respiratory systems.
• Vitamin D plays a role in the gastrointestinal tract and protects against lung infections.
• Zinc helps with immune system function and the maintenance of skin integrity.
• Protein aids in healing and recovery.

While these individual nutrients do serve key functions, when they are combined with other nutrients within a food, their health benefits are enhanced. That is why guidelines for healthy eating continue to move away from the focus on single nutrients and instead focus on overall diet quality. Through this lens, dairy foods continue to perform very well thanks to the dairy matrix, or unique package of nutrients found in dairy foods, that provides added health benefits such as reduced risk of chronic diseases. Additionally, when high-quality foods — including dairy foods, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs and healthy fats and oils — are eaten together, their nutrients interact with one another in unique ways, amplifying their health benefits. Regularly consuming high-quality, nutrient-dense foods helps build healthy eating habits, which contribute to better nutrition and lifelong health.

• Probiotics and postbiotics show promise

Dairy products such as yogurt and certain cheeses also contain probiotics, microorganisms that are gaining attention for their positive impact on health. Eating fermented foods or those with probiotics like cheese and yogurt may improve gut health, which research shows may help improve immunity and reduce inflammation.

In a study that looked at the impact of probiotics on health, researchers found that regular consumption of probiotic-rich drinks among adults helped to reduce the number of upper respiratory infections and flu-like symptoms. In preschool-aged children, a diet that included probiotics every day led to reduced cold and flu symptoms and fewer absences from school.

Scientists are also uncovering a lesser understood functional component of fermented foods — postbiotics.

Postbiotics are biological compounds produced by bacteria during the fermentation process of a food or beverage and may have various benefits in the gut. Postbiotics continue to be examined by scientists to better understand their impact on the human gut and immunity; such research can help expand our knowledge of the positive role fermented foods play in dietary patterns, which can mean good news for dairy foods.

• Emerging research hones in on infectious disease

There is also emerging interest in the link between certain foods and infectious diseases. An example is an uptick of studies examining the potential role that lactoferrin — a nutrient found in dairy and other mammalian milk — may have in prevention and possibly even treatment of infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Specifically, lactoferrin is known to have antibacterial and antiviral properties, and some evidence points to its ability to counteract coronavirus infections and inflammation by blocking the entry of a virus and preventing it from attaching to the host’s cells. While the science on lactoferrin and coronaviruses is still too new to draw conclusions, it highlights the advances in our understanding of how the foods we eat and the components that make up a food can impact human health, including both acute and chronic disease prevention and treatment.

• Functional foods are here to stay

Encouraging consumers to build healthy eating patterns that consist of nutritious and wholesome food choices like cheese and dairy foods will help support good health now and in the future. Beyond immune function, cheese and other dairy foods are linked to a wide range of health benefits, including blood pressure control, improved bone health, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and better weight management. For children and adolescents, consuming dairy foods plays an important role in supporting optimal growth and development and academic success. For these reasons, consumption of cheese, milk and other dairy foods should be encouraged in daily eating patterns.

Globally, our attention remains focused on the pandemic. A survey found that 57% of global consumers are more concerned about their immunity due to COVID-19, with one-third of consumers eating more functional foods or beverages than they had in the past. While the promise of a vaccine is on the horizon, interest in the connection between food, health and immunity is expected to continue beyond the pandemic. What’s more, health crises such as rising rates of obesity and diabetes are still here, exacerbated by the pandemic and elevating the need to educate consumers about the important role of nutrition in overall health.

Whether as aids to boosting immunity or ingredients in an overall healthy eating pattern, encouraging consumption of cheese, as well as milk, yogurt and other dairy foods, can play an important role in elevating health for children and families during the pandemic and beyond.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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