From The Times
8 October, 2019
Is cheese bad for you? You may be surprised by its health secrets
Stop cheating on cheddar. Its links to cardiovascular disease are tenuous and it may prevent diabetes
Can anyone resist a cheeseboard? Clearly not the 92 per cent of us who, according to a report on the UK cheese market, eat cheese at least once a week. Somewhat unfairly, though, the tastier a cheese, the higher in calories and fat it is likely to be, and for years we’ve been warned to resist eating much of it for the sake of our waistlines and our hearts.
Still, nutritionists tell us that cheese is a good source of magnesium and calcium, as well as vitamins A, B2 and B12. This makes it “a complete protein” food, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids needed to build and repair the body’s tissues.
The caveat has always been the saturated fat content of cheese and its less than favourable association with the health of our arteries. Now, though, some researchers claim that cheese’s links with cardiovascular disease are tenuous. In newly published guidelines based on a two-year review of recent evidence, Australia’s national health service has relaxed its view on cheese, suggesting that it’s fine to eat full-fat dairy (unless you have heart disease) and that cheese may have particular health benefits.
In the UK the latest review by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition review, published in August, recommends that foods high in saturated fat, such as cheese, should be eaten sparingly, but for how long will this view last? Research part-funded by the British Heart Foundation has questioned the guidelines about the type of fat we eat and even the most cautious observers concede that the future for cheese lovers is brighter.
“We do now know that there are different types of saturated fat and that the saturated fat in dairy and cheese is not as bad for us as was once thought,” says Linia Patel, a dietician and spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association (BDA). Some recent cheese studies have shown that it may play a preventive role, warding off conditions typically associated with obesity, such as type 2 diabetes.
Cheese has a low glycaemic index (GI), meaning it won’t trigger blood sugar spikes. “Adding any high-protein food such as cheese to dishes like mashed potato or pasta will lower the GI of that meal, helping to counteract the rush of glucose,” says the dietician Helen Bond, a BDA spokeswoman.
In May a team from the University of Alberta published results of a trial they had carried out on pre-diabetic laboratory rats that were fed regular and low-fat cheese. Both types were found to reduce insulin resistance, a condition that can lead to high blood-sugar levels and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. “The cheese didn’t normalise the effects of insulin, but it significantly improved them,” wrote Catherine Chan, the professor of agricultural, life and environmental sciences who led the study. “And it didn’t matter whether it was low-fat or regular cheese.”
Select aged cheeses — brie, stilton and other blues, mature cheddar, parmesan and gruyère — and it’s a step towards extending your lifespan. A compound called spermidine, found in aged cheeses as well as in mushrooms and soy products, seemed to help to prevent liver cancer in a study carried out at Texas A&M University health centre two years ago.
When researchers gave lab animals an oral supplement of spermidine, the animals lived longer and were less likely to have cancerous liver tumours than untreated animals. Leyuan Liu, assistant professor in the university’s Center for Translational Cancer Research, described the increase in lifespan as “dramatic”, with the animals having the cheese compound living as much as 25 per cent longer. “In human terms,” she said, “that would mean that instead of living to about 81 years old, the average American could live to be over 100.”
Even if the effect is not that impressive, your gut will thank you for it. Aged cheeses are fermented and contain a range of beneficial bacteria that boost the microbiome and in turn ramp up immunity and all-round good health.
“Most aged cheeses contain some live microbes,” says Dr Megan Rossi, a research fellow in gut health at King’s College London. “The microbes can come from various places — some are added to the milk or to help ripen a cheese, while others are from the environment in which the cheeses are aged — and can benefit our gut health.”
Cheese is also good for your teeth. A study published in the journal General Dentistry in 2013 is one of several to report that a regular consumption of cheese may help to protect teeth against cavities.
“Cheese is slightly more alkaline so it helps to neutralise plaque acids that form after eating,” says Dr Nigel Carter, the chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation. “The acid formed by sugar in foods causes the pH level in our mouths to drop for about 40 to 50 minutes after we have eaten and you can speed up the return to balance by eating a small piece of cheese following a meal.”
And there’s no truth in the belief that you shouldn’t eat cheese before going to bed. “The only very distant link,” Rossi says, “would be that if you suffer from reflux, having large amounts of a high-fat cheese before bed may exacerbate your symptoms. Otherwise it is fine to eat it with or after an evening meal. It won’t do your teeth any harm to eat cheese in the evening.” Varieties such as cottage cheese and ricotta might even help you to nod off by aiding the production of sleep hormones, Patel says.
HOW TO CHOOSE A CHEESE FOR YOUR NEEDS
Calories 107 per 100g Fat 4g
Last year a University of Florida study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that consuming 30g of protein-rich cottage cheese half an hour before going to bed helped to boost muscle growth and recovery, metabolism and overall health. It’s also low in fat.
Calories 401 per 100g Fat 30g
It’s high in calories, but a 2011 study from the University of Florence reported that it is easily digested thanks to “the presence of ready-to-use proteins and lipids” and is very low in lactose, but rich in phosphorus and calcium for healthy bones.
Calories 262 per 100g Fat 21g
It’s salty, but that makes it a great post-workout snack, says the nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker. “Add some feta cheese to a salad and it provides easily digestible whey protein and salt, so will help to replace sodium lost through sweating,” she says. “It also provides plenty of protein as well as zinc to help boost muscle strength after a gym session.”
Calories 412 per 100g Fat 35g
Blue cheeses are ripened with cultures of the mould penicillium and are a good source of beneficial bacteria. However, stilton is also one of the saltiest cheeses with 1.97g of salt per 100g, triple the amount of some, so eat that sparingly.
Calories 372 per 100g Fat 32
This French cheese is high in fat, but was found by a group of Cambridge-based scientists in 2013 to have specific anti-inflammatory properties. Beneficial compounds within the blue-veined cheese were shown to work best in highly acidic environments such as the lining of the stomach. The researchers suggested that “moulded cheeses, including roquefort, may be even more favourable to cardiovascular health”.
Calories 266 per 100g Fat 24g
All dairy cheeses contain the amino acid glycine, shown in a study from the University of Milan in 2015 to promote deeper sleep in a group of menopausal women, but brie is one of the best sources. It also contains high levels of spermidine, which can help to stop damaged liver cells from replicating.
Calories 238 per 100g Fat 18g
Made from buffalo milk, it is lower in sodium than a lot of cheeses with just 0.6g per 100g compared with 1.81g in cheddar. It also contains bacteria that act as probiotics, including Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus fermentum, which are associated with gut health and immunity.
Calories 416 per 100g Fat 35g
Cheddar remains our favourite cheese and, despite a slight downturn as cheeses such as mozzarella become more fashionable, still accounts for 51 per cent of all the cheese consumed in the UK. It is a particularly good source of vitamin K, important for bone health, and the more mature it is the greater the number of beneficial bacteria it is likely to contain. Dr Nigel Carter of the Oral Health Foundation recommends eating a small piece of it after anything sugary or after acidic foods such as fruit, red wine and pickles, to offset some of the erosive attack on teeth. “If you grate cheddar it goes farther and means you save yourself some calories,” the dietician Linia Patel says.
Calories 329 per 100g Fat 27g
While not lactose-free, goat’s cheese is lower in lactose than ricotta and cottage cheese, containing similar levels to brie and feta, and some people may find it easier to tolerate than other cheeses. Goat’s milk, from which it is made, contains more essential fatty acids (linoleic and arachidonic) than cow’s milk and has been shown to help to reduce total cholesterol levels.
Calories 105 per 100g Fat 7g
Milky-white cheeses such as ricotta and cottage cheese are ideal for eating before bed because they may help you to sleep. Any products with a high milk content will increase levels of the hormones that make us sleepy, Patel says. “It’s partly to do with levels of tryptophan, an amino acid in cheese, helping to raise levels of serotonin, a brain chemical important for sleep patterns.”