The kinds of saturated fat that predominate in milk products and red meats tend to raise total and LDL cholesterol levels.
This is generally untrue of the saturated fats in plant foods, which have beneficial or neutral effects. Examples include lauric acid and stearic acid, which predominate in cocoa butter and coconut, respectively.
It’s become increasingly clear that – excepting the small minority of people with cholesterol-metabolism problems – dietary saturated fats and cholesterol aren’t the real cardiovascular villains.
Instead, chronic inflammation – caused or promoted by diets high in sugars, starches, and omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils – damages artery walls.
The body then uses cholesterol to patch the scarring, resulting in the buildup of plaque that can burst, with dire results. See our sidebar, “The cholesterol myth: distraction born of a deception”.
Danish dairy study absolves cheese of cholesterol crimes
Cheese and butter have long been seen as cholesterol-raising companions, among doctors and patients alike.
But the outcomes of clinical trials published in recent years began to overturn conventional wisdom about the effects of cheese on people’s blood fat profiles (Tholstrup T et al. 2004; Biong AS et al. 2004; Nestel PJ et al. 2005).
Now a group of Danish scientists reports that people who ate hard cheese daily had lower LDL (“bad”), HDL (“good”), and total cholesterol levels, compared with people getting the same amount of fat from butter eaten every day.
Just as surprisingly, eating a diet that included a substantial amount of hard cheese – providing 13 percent of total daily fat intake – did not raise the volunteers’ LDL levels any more than when the subjects ate their normal diet and no cheese.
To the extent that people’s blood cholesterol profiles matter to their risk of heart disease or death – not nearly as much as once believed – the Danes’ findings seem to absolve cheese as a risky food.
Let’s take a closer look at the results of the Danish cheese-versus-butter trial … which should open more eyes.
Danish study absolves cheese, leaves some butter concerns
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen recruited 49 men and women.
To start, the volunteers ate their regular diet for 14 days, and then were assigned to add cheese or butter to it for six weeks.
After a “washout” period of 14 days their regular diets, the volunteers switched diet regimens, with the cheese group changing to butter and vice versa.
Each person was assigned to eat an amount of cheese or butter equal to 13 percent of their usual daily intake of calories from fat.
Despite eating more saturated fat than their usual diets provided, volunteers eating the added-cheese diet showed no increase in LDL or total cholesterol.
In contrast, subjects eating the added-butter diet experienced an average seven percent rise in LDL levels.
Importantly, participants’ HDL cholesterol levels did not drop while on the added-cheese diet, compared to the levels measured during the two 14-day usual-diet periods.
Surprisingly, compared to the added-butter diet, the volunteers’ HDL levels dropped slightly on the added-cheese diet … but not enough to make a significant difference to heart risk.
Authors couldn’t explain the cheese advantage
Cheese has a lot of calcium, and increased dietary calcium can boost the amount of fat excreted by the digestive tract.
But the amounts of excreted fat detected during the added-cheese diet regimens were not statistically significant.
More likely, the differences come down to the larger amount of protein in hard cheeses, and the changes to the composition of the milk wrought by bacterial cultures during the cheese fermentation-aging process.
The study was funded by two industry groups: the Danish Dairy Board and the U.S. Dairy Research Institute.
Biong AS, Müller H, Seljeflot I, Veierød MB, Pedersen JI. A comparison of the effects of cheese and butter on serum lipids, haemostatic variables and homocysteine. Br J Nutr. 2004 Nov;92(5):791-7.
Hjerpsted J, Leedo E, Tholstrup T. Cheese intake in large amounts lowers LDL-cholesterol concentrations compared with butter intake of equal fat content. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Dec;94(6):1479-84. Epub 2011 Oct 26.
Nestel PJ, Chronopulos A, Cehun M. Dairy fat in cheese raises LDL cholesterol less than that in butter in mildly hypercholesterolaemic subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2005 Sep;59(9):1059-63.
Tholstrup T, Høy CE, Andersen LN, Christensen RD, Sandström B. Does fat in milk, butter and cheese affect blood lipids and cholesterol differently? J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Apr;23(2):169-76.