Melt! Science weighs in (again) on the potential heart benefits of a little cheese

Healthy guidelines for the dent you plan to put in that holiday cheese platter.

Healthy guidelines for the dent you plan to put in that holiday cheese platter


"No meal was ever ruined by a respectable topping of cheese. Nothing else can fill you to overflowing with more vigor than a well-fed dairy cow."  — Mark Twain

You're right, that's not an actual Twain quote.

But given the desperation with which we cling to every new food fact served on the topic of cheese, one of our most lauded luxuries, I figured I'd fill your heart with hope, if only briefly. So much comes out about dairy, cheese and the inherent health ills or advantages therein, the science seems to flip-flop more frequently than a grilled cheese sammie (which one would obviously serve with cream of tomato soup). No matter. New data is once again turning up the broiler on the surprising benefits of a little cheese in our diet. So for now, it's probably pretty good for you. We think.

A recent study is touting the heart benefits of cheese — more concrete hope, dear reader. Yay!! BUT, it's in direct conflict with a lot of other science that claims the high-fat, high-salt indulgence should remain just that: an indulgence. Boo!! Worse, some argue it should be a categorically forbidden food. Earlier this year, Dr. Neal D. Barnard published an entire book of reasons to mind the pitfalls of Pepperjack (and all its creamy cousins). In The Cheese Trap: How Breaking a Surprising Addiction Will Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy and Get Healthy, Barnard argues that we should give up the "ultimate processed food" for good.

Consider that Barnard could be right on the addiction front. Casomorphins may make cheese addictive. They're a protein string that act like opioids creating a dopamine response in the brain's pleasure centre, just like cocaine or Celine Dion. An apologia for the many turophiles (hardcore cheese chasers) among us.

Still, new data is once again lifting cheese (and our hopeful hearts) out of the perilously stringy swamp of certain cheese-fueled cardiac failure. Analyzing existing data spanning 10 years, 15 studies and touching over 200,000 subjects, researchers in China and the Netherlands examined long-term cheese consumption as it pertains to risks for cardiovascular disease. The findings showed that high levels of cheese consumption was statistically linked to a 10% lower risk of stroke and a 14% lower risk of coronary heart disease when compared with subjects who ate little or no cheese whatsoever. Pop a curd, I'll wait. 

If you're confounded by the positive results, you aren't alone. Dr. Allan Stewart, director of aortic surgery at Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, says the data is "certainly different from what people might expect."  Stewart did not take part in the study but did offer some dietary logic that you may wish to take with you on your next trip to the market. Though decidedly high in saturated fat and salt, cheese (like most food) is not simply made up of one or two health hazards. It's complex. He posits that the dietary makeup of cheese could offset its deleterious effects. "Cheese", says Stewart, "can be high in probiotics, which tend to put you in less of an inflammatory state". Inflammation does a body bad, particularly the heart. The case for more anti-inflammatory food and medicine is already strong. But even that former baddie, fat, isn't all bad. There's been an ongoing scientific shift due to healthy fats enjoying a reprieve and getting taken off the dietary watch list. Even sweet, beautiful butter now qualifies as an a-okay edible dairy product.   

Cheese, however, also contains an unsaturated fatty acid called CLA (aka conjugated linoleic acid). That acronym may affect two other key acronyms in beneficial ways: upping levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol) and decreasing LDL("bad" cholesterol). Stewart also pointed out that previous data showed "that cheese - as a substitute for milk, for example - may actually have a protective effect on the heart." This newest cheese study echoes another study that points to the mental health benefits of mindfully controlling our dairy intake instead of cutting it out entirely. Not to complicate your meal prepping, but another study cheerfully entitled "Meat and cheese may be as bad for you as smoking" didn't find any favour with healthy hunks of Havarti. So, again we are left to sit and ferment with all this data. 

Regardless, one causal link found by the latest study is worth underlining. Higher and higher cheese consumption did not automatically yield good health. There goes Fondue Friday. Instead, those who showed the lowest risk for both stroke and heart disease consumed an average of about 40 grams of cheese a day. Or a chunk about the size of 2 pairs of dice. I'll take it.

To be fair this isn't even a prescription for daily dosing no matter how expertly measured your Gouda may be. Stewart is clear on the subject of making any dietary changes on a whim. "No one's saying you should definitely go out and eat 40 grams of cheese a day. But on the upside, a bit of cheese on a cracker doesn't sound unreasonable" No, sir, it sounds delicious.

If you'd like an actual Twain quote to support your dietary wins and loses, I'll leave you with this one: Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside. Pretty sound advice, in moderation. Unless you're lactose intolerant.

Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.