Many years ago I worked for the Heart Foundation and it was standard practice to tell anyone newly diagnosed with high blood cholesterol that they had eaten their last piece of cheese. For some I had taken away their reason to live. Between the sobs they would plead: “Just one last cheese toasty, please.” I just had to shake my head and call for the onsite counsellor.
Now there is review article suggesting that I have been the cause of much undue concern.
Beyond saturated fat
The human creation of cheese was a very clever way to concentrate milk and increase it’s shelf life, making it a reliable food source. The enduring problem was its relatively high salt and saturated fat content, a combination that would raise both blood pressure and blood cholesterol. Dutch researchers have now looked at all the randomised control trials, most with a crossover design, comparing cheese and other foods such as butter, milk and tofu.
The authors say: “The results consistently showed that that the effects of cheese on lipids and lipoproteins were different than expected from the fat content.” What they are saying is, although cheese is high in saturated fat it didn’t raise cholesterol as predicted. Why? The abundant calcium in cheese could be binding with fats to reduce their absorption. Previous studies have observed that dairy calcium minimises a rise in blood cholesterol. The phospholipids in cheese may also be attenuating any rise in blood cholesterol.
Hard or soft?
As far as I can gather, the research was done primarily on hard cheese, such as cheddar. There wasn’t a study on soft cheeses like camembert. I suspect that soft cheeses would also have little effect on blood cholesterol, although that suspicion may be biased due to my absolute delight in enjoying an excellent brie or camembert.
What does it all mean?
In nutrition there are many questions. It would be perfect if we could say cheese is good or bad for the heart. It depends. Even now the Heart Foundation is not a big fan of full cream dairy products. They tell us to cut them out and replace them with reduced-fat or low-fat versions. Let’s be honest, reduced-fat cheese is dreadful, akin to eating the soft plastic casings for mobile phones.
So do this. Buy cheese. Buy really nice cheese. Like triple cream camembert. Enjoy it. Just don’t eat too much.