Rejoice – cheese might be better for you than you think

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This article originally appeared in Ingredients Insight magazine

Cheese, long considered excessively fatty and unhealthy, is on the verge of a major image makeover, with new research indicating that many claims once thought true now stand on shaky ground. So could we see it repackaged as a healthy “superfood” or is it doomed to remain a guilty pleasure? Julian Mellentin, director of New Nutrition Business, talks to Oliver Hotham about the future of cheese.

“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” So said the late, great G.K. Chesterton, baffled at the idea that a foodstuff so satisfying, with so much variation and complexity (France alone produces over 400 varieties), could have avoided immortalisation in verse. Every country on earth has its own, and historians broadly argue that cheesemaking predates recorded history.

But in recent decades cheese has taken a bit of a kicking. While still considered one of life’s great pleasures, a more health-conscious culture has seen it condemned as a fatty heart clogger, too rich in salt to be enjoyed too regularly by anyone who wants to stay trim and live a fit life. Cheese has been lumped into categories usually reserved for red meat or fried chicken: as a one way ticket to obesity and an early grave.

This perception might be about to change, however. According New Nutrition Business (NNB), a consultancy specialising in food and health, as well as researchers across the world, many of our assumptions about cheese are rooted in bad science and overzealous public health campaigns with little connection to contemporary science. In short, everything most people think they know about it is wrong.   

“Cheese is at Day 1 of new era of opportunity,” argues the report, triumphantly titled Fortunes of cheese at a tipping point. “After 40 years of being demonized for its fat and salt content cheese today now stands at the threshold of a turnaround.”

NNB has been working on consultancy around food and nutrition for almost twenty years now, following all the debates that have gripped the public’s relationship with food – and, more importantly, their commercial consequences.

This paradigm shift comes in the broader context of dairy’s image rehabilitation as a healthy product. In the 1970s the diary industry, amid a wave of concern about fat consumption, responded to public pressure and began producing low fat alternatives to popular products, from yoghurt to milk, based on a popular hypothesis at the time: that saturated fat in the human diet contributed significantly to cardiovascular disease.

“The key thing is that it was all a hypothesis,” says NNB’s director Julian Mellentin. “Scientific researchers spent 20 years trying to prove it, and what they’ve proven is that in relation to fat in dairy there’s no evidence whatsoever of any negatives.

“Like everyone I spent years buying skimmed milk, eating low fat yoghurt, avoiding butter…  we all did, and we were lied to.”

There’s certainly precedent. Eggs, for example, were long considered unhealthy for reasons similar to cheese, but are now considered something of a natural “superfood”, rich in protein and packed with nutrients. Mellentin points to the now-famous “Nurses Study”, at Harvard Medical School, which saw the diets of some 20,000 nurses tracked for decades and then analysed, as an example of how science can change minds.

“What they found was that nurses who were consuming eggs daily and breaching the health guidelines overall had better cardiovascular health,” he says. “Bad nutrition science in the 70s until recently demonised lots of healthy foods.”

One example of this trend, now broadly accepted as being a healthy snack, is nuts. If you had a heart attack in the 1970s, your doctor would recommend that you immediately cut off the fatty and salty foods, not a misguided suggestion, but it fed into a notion that fat itself was part of the problem.

“What we know now is that the fat in nuts is, in fact, extremely good for you,” says Mellentin. “As recently as the 1990s there were still people arguing that nuts were bad for you. It took until 1998 for that to start to change.”

So what does the science suggest? For one, it’s that what used to be considered the most harmful contents of cheese, the saturated fat and the sodium, aren’t as bad for cardiovascular health or as linked to elevated blood pressure as once thought.

“The science is clear that there’s no cardio-vascular negatives about dairy fat, full stop,” says Mellentin. “It’s become about belief and dogma, not about science.”

In a study conducted in Norway, for example, a notable negative correlation was found between levels of cheese consumption and the BMI of a group of test subjects of all ages. With the view to finding out whether the high levels of saturated fats present would cause weight gain, the researchers found that the opposite might be true.

One pioneer of this type of research is Professor Arne Astrup, head of the department of nutrition, exercise and sports at the University of Copenhagen, who headed the influential Diogenes study in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 2010 – a study which made the case for high-protein, low-carb diets. He believes that science has long made the mistake of purely looking at the effects of individual nutrients, and not considered whether these might be better understood in the context of the foods as a whole.

“The food matrix [the composite of naturally occurring food components in a food] is extremely important and determines the final effects on the body,” he told New Nutrition Business. “And cheese is proof of this.”

Consumers have also been put off by the high levels of salt undeniably present in cheese – a component that’s actually essential to the production of the product itself. But again, Astrup says that nutrition science has got it wrong, and that it should instead be assessed on its tangible effect on blood pressure: “such studies clearly show that cheese does not increase blood pressure”.

Studies also demonstrate that there’s a lot in cheese that’s actually good for us. The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study conducted by Cambridge, Oxford and others last year found that dairy products were associated with a 12%  lower risk of type 2 diabetes. There are also the tentative links between the natural bacteria and probiotics which exist in cheese and reduced risk of obesity.

Cheese getting a health makeover is only a very recent development, and it’s not something consumers would have been hearing about even two years ago, when “natural foods”, such as Quinoa, salmon, or oats, were all the rage. Much of the research even goes one step further, too, suggesting that, far from having a wholly negative impact on health, cheese could actually hold a number of health benefits, what Melletin calls a “natural wholefood”, much like eggs or nuts.

“I think we’ve been demonising cheese unfairly, and picking off sodium and fat as being problems,” he says. “They’re part of a matrix, and it seems the calcium and protein offset the negatives. There’s absolutely no harm in people consuming cheese in reasonable quantities.”

Some would argue that the citizens of a certain European country have known all along that cheese is good for you.  What’s become known as the “French Paradox” has long one of the most baffling mysteries in food and nutritional science: how is it that the French have the highest per capita consumption of cheese in world (26.3 kg a year) but remain, on average, slim and free of heart disease?

There are a few theories. For one, the French lead less stressful lifestyles than many of their more overweight contemporaries, enjoying 35-hour working weeks, as well as longer holidays and lunch breaks. There’s also the hypotheses that they benefit from the health benefits of moderate consumption of red wine, or that the traditional French diet is rich in vitamin K2, which is known to reduce the chance of heart disease. Still, the French people’s ability to put away 2 kilos of cheese per capita a month and stay healthy seems to defy all conventional nutritional wisdom.

The truth may lie in the fact that the received wisdom is simply incorrect.

“How is it that French people eat lots of butter and cheese and the things we were told were wrong, and are skinnier and healthier?” asks Mellentin. “It turns out their diet was the one that had the scientific foundation and ours was the one that was based on dogma.”

Of course, no-one is saying we can all go out and eat as much cheese as we like and stay trim and healthy. As a product it’s highly calorific, and the nutritional value of it varies wildly according to the type and quality of the brand.

But could the cheese be on the precipice of becoming a superfood snack, like nuts and eggs before it? There’s a long way to go, and it’s about changing minds as much as it is about changing marketing. Many cling to the idea, taught to most us at school, that fatty products are almost universally unhealthy, and shifting these prejudices will be a generational and cultural undertaking.

NNB argues that there are several ways this can happen, but that the industry will have to be bold. The first is the dairy industry taking a “courageous and proactive” approach, similar to the path taken by nuts: instead of waiting for consumers to get the memo about the new science, it repackaged the product into new formats and brands.

“I think almonds are a very good example, because what the almond people did is they moved away from selling a boring commodity – nuts in a bag – and they created snacks,” says Melletin. “They made it interesting, and that is basically where the dairy industry has to go with cheese.”

“You need to present it not just as cheese itself, but as a tasty snack.”

One of the key obstacles to this high-minded marketing strategy, Melletin argues, lies with the ways the producers of cheese understand their business. Dairy farmers tend to see themselves as selling a commodity, not a consumer good, making brand adaptability a challenge.

“Farmer-run companies often think they’re running a milk disposal service where they need to be selling these huge blocks of cheese,” he says. “You end up competing as a commodity: on price. What they now need to be doing is asking ‘how do we present cheeses in a more interesting way?’”

In short, it needs to sell itself more as what it is, and not just as another byproduct of farming. Many brands already do this, but for the fortunes of cheese to really reach their full potential, it’ll have to market itself in totally new ways.

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