You dutifully eat your fat-free yogurts, unbuttered veggies and other virtuously low-fat (and low-flavor) fare.
After all, you want to protect your cardiovascular system from harmful saturated fats.
But: What if I told you that a nice chunk of cheese—yes, that deliciously decadent dairy delight that comes in so many mouthwatering varieties—was also good for your heart?
Well, it’s true, according to new research from the UK, which revealed some previously unknown properties of cheese.
And the findings may help explain a mystery that has confounded scientists for decades…
I’m talking about the conundrum called the French paradox. People in France have remarkably low rates of cardiovascular disease despite the fact that their diets typically are quite high in saturated fat. By some estimates, saturated fats contribute up to 40% of their total calories! Based on that, you’d expect Frenchmen to be dropping like flies from heart disease. But they aren’t. Instead, they have the third-lowest rate of cardiovascular mortality in the world.
Some people attribute this to French folks’ fondness for red wine, which contains the antioxidant resveratrol. But inhabitants of other countries also drink lots of red wine, yet their heart health can’t compare to that of the French.
So researchers wondered what other dietary factors might help explain the French paradox. Since cheese consumption in France is among the highest in the world, they took a close look at cheese—not only a laboratory analysis of the biochemical properties of cheese, but also a clinical trial that directly examined how cheese consumption affects people. What they discovered was extremely promising—and startling.
NEWLY REVEALED HEALTH BENEFITS
We contacted Ivan Petyaev, MD, PhD, founder and CEO of the firm that conducted the research. He explained that cheese’s heart-protective properties may derive from its beneficial effects on…
Inflammation. A complex enzymatic transformation that occurs as cheese ripens leads to the formation of substances known to reduce inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein. This is extremely important, Dr. Petyaev said, because high levels of inflammation are closely associated with cardiac and other vascular diseases.
Blood pressure. Cheese contains compounds capable of inhibiting the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) that controls blood pressure. The effects could be similar to ACE inhibitor medications used to control hypertension.
Cholesterol and bacteria. Cheeses with mold (such as Roquefort) may be particularly advantageous to cardiovascular health. When these cheeses are ripened through fermentation with fungi such as Penicillium roqueforti, they form substances that combat bacteria. What do these bacteria have to do with heart disease? Dr. Petyaev explained that, in more than half of adults, bacteria acting as “parasites” in the liver and blood vessels are responsible for increases in cholesterol synthesis.
Nutrient status. Cheese also provides numerous nutrients that the body needs for overall good health—including heart health—such as protein, calcium and vitamins A, D, B-6 and B-9.
THE BEST OF THE BUNCH
The researchers’ analysis was quite extensive, encompassing nine blue-veined cheeses from six different countries…eight white fungi-fermented cheeses from three countries…seven bacteria-fermented cheeses from five countries…and two processed “cheeses” from two countries. Most were made from cow’s milk, but some were made from ewe’s milk or goat’s milk. The various cheeses were evaluated for anti-inflammatory activity using a proprietary patented lab test, Dr. Petyaev said.
Based on the researchers’ discoveries, some cheeses rate as more heart-healthy than others. Here are the ones that Dr. Petyaev said top the list. All are available at supermarkets, cheese shops and/or online (for instance, I like MurraysCheese.com).
Blue-veined cheeses—such as Roquefort…Danish Blue…Gorgonzola…and mature Stilton.
White fungi-fermented cheeses—such as Camembert (from cow’s or goat’s milk)…and mature Brie.
Bacteria-fermented cheeses—such as mature Cheddar…mature Emmental, which is similar to Swiss and made with two types of bacteria to produce the characteristic holes…and Ossau-Iraty, a ewe’s milk cheese with a toasted-wheat aroma and nutty, grassy-sweet flavor. (While all cheeses are bacteria-fermented, Dr. Petyaev’s study suggested that these three are among the most beneficial for your heart.)
You’ll notice that the processed “cheese” (such as American cheese) so common in the US does not appear on the list above—because it was not found to have heart-healthy properties.
How much cheese should you eat? Dr. Petyaev recommended aiming for a total of 15 to 25 grams (about one-half to one ounce) per day, choosing from the selections above. Don’t go overboard—cheese has around 100 calories per ounce.
To keep the calorie count under control, forget about pairing cheese with bread or crackers. Instead, place slivers of cheese on slices of apple or pear…tuck cheese into celery sticks…or sprinkle cheese over a chopped-veggie salad. If you like your cheese melted, go ahead—melting it will not diminish its beneficial properties.