Guest Columns

Dairy Research

Cheese is a healthy food

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

Over the past several decades the perception of which foods are “healthy” has been evolving. Some foods that the public had associated as “unhealthy,” like eggs and butter, have seen a revival as recent nutritional research has revisited the early assumptions on fat and discovered that not all fat is created equal.

For example, with a headline of “Eat Butter,” Time magazine reported in 2014 that saturated fats do not cause heart disease.

In fact, not only are researchers finding that some fats are healthy, but the chemistry, or structure of cheese, referred to as the cheese matrix, may beneficially alter how the body processes fats from dairy. Recent nutritional research has challenged the traditional dietary views regarding fat, leading the FDA to reconsider its position on the labeling of healthy foods.

Currently nutritional advice tries to focus more on the type of fat rather than the amount, highlighting the amount of added sugars, as well as concentrations of key nutrients, like vitamin D and potassium. As FDA reviews how it will define healthy foods, it is worthwhile to review the mounting nutritional evidence that consumption of cheese contributes to improved health and wellness.

When the original stories about the potential dangers of fat came out about 30 years ago, conclusions were based on various assumptions or hypotheses. Recent reviews of multiple nutritional studies have shown, however, that there is no solid evidence that higher intakes of milk and dairy products, regardless of milkfat levels, are associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease or stroke. Additional studies also have indicated that consumption of full-fat dairy products actually reduces the risk for obesity and diabetes.

Scientific evidence also has demonstrated that there is no association between intake of cheese and the raising of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol in the blood.

In hindsight, the confusion about fats may have been due to the fact that researchers at that time were overlooking the natural variety of fatty acids present in dairy products. Recently, there has been more of a focus on the negative aspects of the trans fats formed by partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found in many formulated foods. When analyzing health impacts, the specific types of fatty acids found in dairy products are important aspects to consider. While the traditional message has been that dairy fat is all saturated fat, in fact cheese is about 66 percent saturated, 30 percent monounsaturated and 4 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, making it a good source of a variety of fatty acids that all interact differently within the body.

For example, recent studies show that short and medium chain saturated fatty acids, such as butyric and lauric acids, may actually have positive physiological benefits. Milkfat also is one of the main dietary sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that Dr. Michael Pariza from UW-Madison showed has potential anticarcinogenic, reduced inflammation and weight management benefits. Additionally, some researchers are now proposing that high cheese consumption reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. This finding may relate to the high calcium levels in cheese. The suggestion is that during digestion of cheese, calcium forms insoluble soaps with fatty acids that results in milkfat being excreted rather than absorbed into the bloodstream.

Studies, such as those discussed above, have led many researchers to further investigate the confusing relationship between cheese and cardiovascular disease. One of the first examples of this confusing relationship was seen a few decades ago when the term “French Paradox” was coined to describe the fact that the French population had a high intake of saturated fat but a low incidence of coronary heart disease.

Though a high consumption of red wine was originally suggested as a potential factor explaining this paradox, it was later determined that a very high intake of wine would actually be needed to exert any significant beneficial impacts. Instead recent research has suggested that the “French Paradox” might be explained by the very high consumption of cheese by the French, as well as other foods or lifestyle issues. Though the “French Paradox” may not be fully understood, the point stands that dairy fat is not all bad and the original assumptions also lacked an understanding of the cheese matrix and its impact on fat digestion.

In other words, until recently nutritional science simply focused on individual components (fat, protein, carbohydrates, etc.) and judged foods only on the basis of the concentrations of these nutrients. Today, however, researchers are discovering that the structure of foods, as well as the specific combination of components, can impact digestion and absorption.

Cheese is a naturally fermented food that includes interesting materials like “bioactive peptides,” which are essentially fragments of protein chains that have a physiological impact on the body. These peptides are created by bacterial enzymes as a result of the fermentation process. Several studies, including one recently published by the Center for Dairy Research, have showcased the unique potential benefits of these bioactive peptides including reduced hypertension, enhanced immune support and improved cardiovascular health.

In summary, cheese is a natural food that has been consumed for many thousands of years and there is no doubt that cheese has a very high nutrient density and is a valuable source of protein, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, with most cheeses being good sources of vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and folate. Most cheeses contain only negligible amounts of carbohydrate (lactose). In fact, recent nutritional research has demonstrated that the consumption of cheese contributes to a balanced, healthy diet. Therefore, it seems appropriate to reconsider whether natural, high nutrient dense foods like cheese should in the future be described/labeled as healthy by organizations like FDA to better inform consumers of choices that could improve their well-being.


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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