LONDON (THE GUARDIAN) - Consuming cheese, milk and yoghurt – even full-fat versions – does not increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke, according to research that challenges the widely held belief that dairy products can damage health.
The findings, from an international team of experts, contradict the view that dairy products can be harmful because of their high saturated fat content. The experts dismiss that fear as “a misconception [and] mistaken belief”.
The results come from a new meta-analysis of 29 previous studies of whether dairy products increase the risk of death from any cause and from either serious heart problems or cardiovascular disease. The study concluded that such foodstuffs did not raise the risk of any of those events and had a “neutral” impact on human health.
“This meta-analysis showed there were no associations between total dairy, high- and low-fat dairy, milk and the health outcomes including all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease,” says the report, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.
Ian Givens, a professor of food chain nutrition at Reading University, who was one of the researchers, said: “There’s quite a widespread but mistaken belief among the public that dairy products in general can be bad for you, but that’s a misconception. While it is a widely held belief, our research shows that that’s wrong.
“There’s been a lot of publicity over the last five to 10 years about how saturated fats increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and a belief has grown up that they must increase the risk, but they don’t.”
However, the government’s health advisers urged consumers to continue to exercise caution about eating too many products high in saturated fat and to stick to low-fat versions instead.
“Dairy products form an important part of a healthy balanced diet; however, many are high in saturated fat and salt. We’re all consuming too much of both, increasing our risk of heart disease,” said a spokesman for Public Health England. “We recommend choosing lower-fat varieties of milk and dairy products or eating smaller amounts to reduce saturated fat and salt in the diet.”
Givens and colleagues from Reading, Copenhagen University in Denmark and Wageningen University in the Netherlands analysed 29 studies involving 938,465 participants from around the world undertaken over the last 35 years, including five done in the UK.
“No associations were found for total (high-fat/low-fat) dairy and milk with the health outcomes of mortality, CHD or CVD,” they said. In fact, they added, fermented dairy products may potentially slightly lower the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Doctors, public health experts and official healthy eating guidelines have for many years identified saturated fats as potentially harmful for heart and cardiovascular health and advised consumers to minimise their intake.
That has led to consumers increasingly buying lower-fat versions of dairy products. For example, 85 per cent of all milk sold in the UK is now semi-skimmed or skimmed.
Givens said consumers were shunning full-fat versions of cheese, milk or yoghurt in the mistaken view that they could harm their health. Young people, especially young women, were now often drinking too little milk as a result of that concern, which could damage the development of their bones and lead to conditions in later life including osteoporosis, or brittle bones, he said. Consuming too little milk can deprive young people of calcium.
Pregnant women who drank too little milk could be increasing the risk of their child having neuro-developmental difficulties, which could affect their cognitive abilities and stunt their growth, Givens added.
The most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the government’s occasional snapshot of eating habits, found that dairy products, including butter, accounted for the highest proportion of saturated fat consumption in British diets – 27 per cent, compared with meat’s 24 per cent. But if butter was not counted then dairy products together were the second largest source of saturated fat, at 22 per cent.
Saturated fat is a vital part of diet. The NDNS found that adults typically got 34.6 per cent of their total energy from fats as a whole, just below the 35 per cent the government recommends. However, while total fat consumption was just within target, saturated fats still made up an unhealthily large proportion of total food energy – 12.6 per cent, against the recommended maximum of 11 per cent.
Givens said: “Our meta-analysis included an unusually large number of participants. We are confident that our results are robust and accurate.”
The research was part-funded by the three pro-dairy groups – Global Dairy Platform, Dairy Research Institute and Dairy Australia – but they had no influence over it, the paper said. Givens is an adviser to the Food Standards Agency.