Cheese gets a bad rap because it’s high in saturated fat, which has been linked to increased blood levels of LDL cholesterol, more commonly known as the “bad” cholesterol. While this might make intuitive sense, there’s just one catch: cheese – even in high amounts – may not raise LDL cholesterol after all. We know this from several recent studies that have examined high cheese consumption (compared to butter consumption) over the course of several weeks and then tested LDL cholesterol response:
- One study examined replacing part of participants’ usual dietary fat consumption with either cheese or butter. Participants ate about four servings of cheese each day for six weeks, 15 percent of calories from saturated fat, which was compared to an equal amount of fat from butter. The researchers found that those who ate four servings of cheese per day actually lowered their LDL cholesterol compared to those who ate the butter. While LDL cholesterol did increase in those who ate butter, it should be noted that this quantity of butter would amount to more than double (5.8 percent vs. 13 percent of total fat) than is typically consumed by Americans.
- A few years and a few studies later, a systematic review paper was published that sought to examine the totality of the literature on cheese and cholesterol. The review found that all the studies that compared cheese and butter were consistent: cheese consumption lowered cholesterol when compared to an equivalent amount of butter.
- It should also be noted that butter also may not be as detrimental as we once thought, as recent research from the World Health Organization shows that saturated fat in general, is not associated with heart disease risk.
Just what is it about cheese that results in these unexpected findings? Scientists are not sure, but it is possibly due to:
- The calcium in cheese reducing absorption of the fat during digestion: Many do not know that though cheese contributes saturated fat to the diets of Americans, it also contributes 21 percent of the calcium, along with 11.4 percent of the phosphorus, 9.2 percent of the vitamin A, 7.5 percent of the zinc, 6.6 percent of the vitamin B12 and 5.2 percent of the riboflavin - thus helping people meet nutrient requirements. It’s the calcium, however, that is thought to play a role in reducing the absorption of fat from cheese during digestion.
- Something unique about the dairy fat itself in cheese: In fact, there is an emerging body of research from large cohort studies that indicates full-fat dairy products (including milk, cheese, and yogurt) may not be associated with heart disease risk, and in some cases may actually be associated with a reduced risk for heart disease. These findings appear to indicate that dairy fat, although made up of mostly saturated fat, may not be what we thought it was in terms of its association with heart disease.
- The packaging of the nutrients in cheese. It may even be the way the fat and other nutrients are packaged in cheese, known as the cheese matrix, which contributes to these effects. More research is needed to know for sure.
Regardless of the mechanisms, one thing appears to be clear: More research is needed to determine if cheese actually raises LDL cholesterol. Like most things in nutrition science, the story is turning out to be much more complicated, and much more fascinating!