For years cheese has been demonized and we have been told to limit its consumption; It was thought to contain large amounts of saturated fat, which is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
But has cheese been misunderstood? Some experts now believe that cheese’s distinctive “matrix” (i.e., its unique molecular structure and components) means it may actually be beneficial to your health.
In fact, research suggests that cheese has a positive effect on heart, gut, and cognitive health, and may protect against type 2 diabetes.
One of the latest studies, published in the journal Nutrients, found that eating cheese regularly is linked to better brain health in older people.
Researchers in Japan analyzed the diets of more than 1,500 people over the age of 65: those who reported eating cheese regularly (any type, and between once a week and every day) performed better on cognitive tests and had a lower risk of dementia, compared to those who did not use it at all.
For years cheese has been demonized and we have been told to limit its consumption; It was thought to contain large amounts of saturated fat, which is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke (file image)
Separately, research presented at the American Society for Nutrition conference in July suggested that a type of probiotic (or “good” bacteria), Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, found naturally in parmesan and yogurt, improved memory and brain function in older people with mild cognitive problems. deterioration, precursor to dementia.
The probiotic, which was administered in the form of a drink, is believed to rebalance the gut microbiome, the bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in the digestive tract, and in turn affected brain function.
As James Goodwin, professor of the physiology of aging at Loughborough University, explains, these gut microbes stimulate immune cells that send messages through nerves to the brain.
The gut microbiome also acts directly on the brain through the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the gut. And some chemicals produced in the brain, including serotonin and dopamine, are also produced in the gut.
“Healthy gut, healthy brain,” says Professor Goodwin, author of Supercharge Your Brain.
Cheese (and other dairy products, such as milk and yogurt) help maintain microbiome diversity because they contain a variety of “good” bacteria, and unpasteurized cheese, like most blue cheeses, contains greater diversity. of bacteria.
“Cheese also contains high levels of anti-inflammatory molecules, called oleamide and dehydroergosterol, which are exceptionally beneficial for the brain,” adds Professor Goodwin.
When it comes to heart health, despite long-standing fears that the saturated fats in cheese increase the level of LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol in our blood, recent research suggests otherwise. In 2018, Dr Emma Feeney, assistant professor at the Institute of Food and Health at University College Dublin, led a six-week trial in which 164 people over 50 with slightly elevated cholesterol levels were divided into three groups. and were given 42 g of milk fat per day. day.
One group received this in the form of 120g of mature cheddar cheese. Another was given a combination of butter and low-fat cheddar cheese, while a third group was given it as separate components that mimicked cheese (butter, a calcium supplement, and powdered calcium caseinate, similar to the protein found in cheese).
The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that the whole cheese group had a greater reduction in overall cholesterol and LDL cholesterol than the other two groups.
Dr. Feeney believes the matrix of cheese and how fat is held within its structure is key. “The fatty acids in cheese are thought to bind to the calcium in it, making it harder for our enzymes to break it down when it’s in the cheese structure than in butter,” he says.
‘This means that less saturated fat enters the bloodstream when it is in cheese.
Some experts now believe that cheese’s distinctive ‘matrix’ – that is, its unique molecular structure and components – means it may actually be beneficial to health (file photo)
‘It is believed that some of the fat binds with calcium to form ‘soaps’; These are not absorbed in the intestine and are eliminated with feces.
“There seems to be something special about the cheese matrix.” The theory that calcium reduces fat absorption was supported by a follow-up study led by Dr. Feeney and published in the European Journal of Nutrition earlier this year.
The seven participants consumed 240 g of high-calcium cheddar cheese per day (made for the study) for two weeks and then the same amount of low-calcium cheddar cheese for the same time.
High-calcium cheese caused a greater reduction in LDL cholesterol. Cheeses high in calcium include white, hard, mature cheeses, such as cheddar and parmesan; Ricotta is a cheese low in calcium.
One explanation, according to Dr Oliver Guttmann, a consultant cardiologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Wellington Hospital in London, is that cheese components known as sphingolipids may reduce cholesterol absorption in the intestine.
“There is a theory that cheese provides a lot of good things, such as beneficial microbes and nutrients, but also that perhaps cheese itself inhibits the absorption of its harmful elements,” he says.
Low fat or low salt: the best type for you
Softer cheeses, such as mozzarella, feta, and cottage cheese, tend to be lower in fat, so they may be better for people who are worried about gaining weight.
Most cheese studies have used hard cheese, so it’s unclear whether soft types offer the same benefits, says Dr Emma Feeney, from the Institute of Food and Health at University College Dublin. “Softer cheeses are likely to have a slightly different matrix (molecular structure), as they have higher moisture content and less fat, but they also differ in calcium content.”
Another consideration is salt, which is added to cheese as a preservative.
High-salt cheeses include feta, stilton, and cheddar; mozzarella and ricotta contain less.
“High salt” is more than 1.5 g per 100 g.
Dr. Feeney is currently leading a study looking at whether or not changing the structure of cheese when melting it influences its impact on health.
It is thought that when cheese is heated, the fat droplets clump together to form larger fat clumps, which can make it easier for our enzymes to access.
But while some experts focus on the cheese matrix, others suggest that one of the components, the saturated fat that comes from dairy, may be beneficial in itself and even protect against type 2 diabetes.
“Saturated fats are a wide range of substances, and those from dairy do not appear to have the same harmful impact as other saturated fats, such as processed fats,” explains Dr. Frankie Phillips, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
While most fatty acids (building blocks of fat) have an even number of carbon atoms, dairy contains two unique odd-chain fatty acids, C15 and C17, that are not found in other foods.
A major study, the EPIC-InterAct study, published in Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology in 2014, looked at the diet of about 19,000 people in Europe.
Professor Jules Griffin, director of the Rowett Institute at the University of Aberdeen and a member of the research team, told Good Health that he found C15 and C17 were associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Douglas Twenefour, head of care at Diabetes UK, says people with diabetes or who are at risk of developing the disease are advised to eat cheese and other dairy products.
‘We don’t really know why cheese has a positive impact in terms of type 2 diabetes, but one hypothesis from animal studies is that C15 and C17 are associated with reducing insulin resistance (where the body’s cells do not respond to the hormone, allowing glucose to accumulate in the blood), which is key in the development of the disease.’
For people with diabetes, cheese does not raise blood sugar, making it a good food, he adds.
While Dr. Feeney wouldn’t recommend that people eat the same amounts that were given to participants in her trials, she says her research suggests that eating more than 30 grams of cheese a day (about the size of a matchbox) It will not have a negative impact on heart health, and may even be beneficial.
He adds that his 2018 study found that those with the highest initial cholesterol levels had greater reductions, suggesting they might benefit more from including cheese in their diet.
“Unfortunately, they are still told to exclude it,” he says.
Dr. Guttmann is more cautious. “Research suggests that consuming 30 to 40 grams a day is probably very good for your health,” he says, adding that because cheese is high in salt and an energy-dense food, you’re more likely to eat 30 to 40 grams a day. To gain weight, eating more than this a few days a week can tip the scales in terms of its health benefits.