Can cheese help keep heart disease at bay?

August 3, 2015 - 06:25

The French diet is heavy on wine and cheese, but despite that fact heart disease is uncommon in France. A new study suggests that cheese may be the reason why.

According to new research, a piece of full fat brie may not be as bad as you may think, and even may help to keep heart disease at bay. (Foto: Shutterstock)

The French love their red wine and cheese, but at the same time have relatively few incidences of cardiovascular disease.

Since the 1980s, scientists have dubbed it ‘the French paradox’ -- Just how can the French avoid cardiovascular disease whilst consuming masses of saturated fat in cheese?

Now scientists suggest that this cheese intake strengthens the intestinal bacterial flora, which helps to keep weight low.

"We suggest that cheese can be an important piece of the puzzle of the French paradox," says Morten Rahr Clausen in a press release. He is a postdoc in the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University, Denmark, and one of the researchers behind the new study.

According to the press release, Frenchmen eat, on average, 25 kilograms of cheese a year -- compared to the average American who consumes 15 kilograms of cheese a year.

Cheese can be healthy

In the new study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, scientists analysed the faeces and urine of 15 men.

The men were divided into three groups, where one group ate a lot of cheese (see fact box).

Facts

The trial enrolled 15 men on 3 different diets for two weeks.

One group ate large amounts of cheese as the only dairy product.

The second group was given large quantities of milk as the only dairy product.

The third and last group ate a control diet with butter as the only dairy product.

All three diets had similar levels of calories and fat.

Source: Press release from Aarhus University, Denmark.

Those who ate the most cheeses and milk also had the highest levels of the fatty acid known as butyrate, which according to the scientists, can help to reduce cases of heart disease. Moreover, butyrate is known to boost metabolism, keep body fat down, and help to prevent obesity.

Scientists also found that cheese resulted in higher incidences of short-chain fatty acids in the gut (see fact box), possibly due to the stimulation of the beneficial intestinal bacteria. Furthermore, men who had eaten cheese excreted more fats, which may help to metabolise cholesterol.

Finally, the researchers also found that those who ate the most cheese produced less TMAO -- a substance previously associated with cardiovascular disease.

More research needed to explain the results

The researchers behind the study are not entirely sure how cheese benefits health – do good substances come from the cheeses directly, or are they formed by the intestine’s own bacteria with help from the cheese?

"We need more studies to identify the mechanisms linking cheese with intestinal flora and cholesterol," says Clausen in the press release.

“An interesting study”

Lars Hellgren from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) has not participated in the study, but believes it is exciting.

"Their study is what you would call an exploratory study -- they have not previously known what they were looking for, but have measured and analysed as much as they could, and then seen what differences there were," says Hellgren.

Facts

Short chain fatty acids are an energy source that bacteria feed off. They can also occupy the colonic intestinal wall, pass into the liver, and then to the rest of the body.

Source: Microbiota-Generated Metabolites Promote Metabolic Benefits via Gut-Brain Neural Circuits

"It has the advantage that it is not influenced in any one direction, and therefore one can discover things you would never otherwise have thought about. The weakness is that it does not prove any causal link -- however it forms the basis for hypotheses, which can then be tested."

Research sponsored by the food industry -- so is it truly independent?

The new study is sponsored by Arla Foods and the Dairy Research Foundation. The Arla company is invested in the dairy industry, but Hellgren does not think this is problematic.

"I know that Arla Foods and the Dairy Research Foundation have a good arm's length principle and they do not interfere in research. And generally, a lot of the funding for food research is provided by the food industry," says Hellgren.

According to Hellgren, receiving research funding from the food industry is not without problems, as the sponsors can be selective as to which research topics will receive financial backing.

"There can be problems when industry funds research, because it may provide some constraints on which research projects are selected, but the research projects that are carried out are as a rule very valuable," he says.

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Read the Danish version of this article on Videnskab.dk
 

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Translated by
Catherine Jex