You may have seen the recent headlines that eating a little cheese every day might actually protect against heart disease, despite its very high levels of saturated fat. Can this be true?
These news articles are based on a Chinese study that appears to support earlier research published in May in the European Journal of Epidemiology, which had very similar conclusions. In this new study, the researchers gathered together the results of several prospective studies (studies that took information from a group of people and then observed them for at least 10 years) and pooled them together to see if the conclusions change (meta-analysis).
They discovered that people who ate a little cheese every day were less likely to have heart disease or strokes within that follow-up period. In fact, 18% less likely – and the results were strongest among those who ate about 40g (1.5oz) cheese daily. Which is roughly the size and thickness of one half of an iPhone 4!
This could support the theory behind what is known as the French paradox, a cheese eating nation who have less heart disease and obesity rates than the UK or US. I discussed this in an earlier article about full fat dairy.
The precise mechanisms of why this would be are still not known, but food and nutrition scientists believe that it could be down to the high calcium levels in cheese, which makes the fat in cheese less likely to be digested.
But other dairy products also contain high amounts of calcium and come loaded with much less fat and salt than cheese: yoghurt and milk in particular. These dairy products are recommended by dietitians and nutritionists as the “go to” dairy product to ensure a healthy daily dose of calcium and other vitamins and minerals.
Studies on cheese, milk and yoghurt are very often supported and funded by the dairy industry – and this particular study grabbing the headlines this week itself was supported by Yili Innovation Centre, China and Yili R&D Centre, the Netherlands – The Yili Group is a dairy manufacturer. The other study was partly funded by the Global Dairy Platform, Dairy Research Institute, Australia.
This does not mean that the results of these studies are invalid. The authors have stated that there is no conflict of interest, but would this study have been published if the results suggested otherwise? How many dairy funded studies have not been published – and do they show the opposite effect? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves, and scientists prefer to compare with independent studies first before any conclusions can be drawn.
So is cheese good for us? In small amounts, possibly. But cheese is heavy in salt and saturated fat so there may well be a limit before any positive health effect is negated. Remember, 40g will barely fill a cheese sandwich.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.