January 02, 2022 4 min read
Cheese isn’t often regarded as a healthy food. Common opinion is that it is a good source of calcium but that the fat content, in particularly saturated fat means that low fat versions of cheese or yoghurt or milk are often given as better sources of the nutrients.
In more recent times however, the case for unpasteurised cheese has begun to be made. Firstly it’s noted that we do actually need fats in our diet. It is essential for replenishing our cells and a key source of energy for our brain. It was the consumption of fats that allowed the human brain to develop & allowing us to take the place we have on the evolutionary ladder. Fat consumption, however, has for many years been associated with cardiovascular disease making it a paradoxical food at once essential to our health and potentially damaging it at the same time.
The issue of heart health aroused the attention of the world in 1955 when the US President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. Subsequently research, in particular that by Ancel Keys, analysed dietary factors that could contribute to a heart attack. Keys’ research drew a correlation between the consumption of saturated fats from milk products and meat with a higher instance of cardiovascular disease and suggested that by replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats in the diet cardiovascular disease would decrease. A hugely important piece of his work is the Seven Countries Study which compared the diets of seven countries in which cardiovascular disease levels were low and extrapolated the theory we all know now of the healthiest diet being what is called the Mediterranean Diet, based largely on what was thought to be the diet on the island of Crete; plenty of fish, fruit, vegetables, whole grains with the primary fat source being olive oil.
A couple of factors however have been raised which complicate the results of the Seven Countries Study. Firstly, the French paradox. Secondly, the Cretan diet also contains a substantial amount of dairy produce mainly yoghurt and cheese, yet in Crete cardiovascular disease levels remain low.
In France, the average person eats 24kg of cheese a year. This is twice the amount consumed by the average American or British person and yet life expectancy in France is 4 years longer than that in the USA and the rate of heart disease is a third less. Going by the Seven Countries Study this shouldn’t be possible and yet it is.
In Tim Spector’s book, The Diet Myth, he analyses why the French paradox might occur. He references a study comparing cheese consumption and butter consumption in which 2 groups after being on a low-fat diet for a few weeks were either put onto a diet where the fat sources came from cheese or from butter increasing the calorie consumption by 13%. Whereas the butter group's blood lipid levels increased, the cheese group's didn’t, suggesting that not all saturated fat has the same effect.
The theory he espouses is that the fermentation process is important to why cheese and yoghurt despite the saturated fat content causes no harm to heart health and in fact the presence of the bacteria and the diversity of bacteria in unpasteurised cheese has health benefits.
Before his work on the ZOE app for monitoring Covid, Tim Spector was focussed on what he calls ‘Twin Studies’. In this he looks for reasons why twins, born identical, may have incredibly different standards of health in adult life when they have identical inherited genes. His research has shown that a large proportion of the genetic material in our bodies isn’t what we inherit but is derived from the bacteria in our intestines. By looking at the differing diversities of gut bacteria in the twins he was able to identify some key bacteria types which were common in the healthier twins, one of which is lactobacillus, present in any fermented dairy products as well as known healthy foods such as sourdough bread, sauerkraut & kimchi. In general, in studies across the world, the common denominator between the healthiest populations is a varied diet, high in fibre from fruit & vegetables and encouraging a high biodiversity in the gut.
In fact the French paradox may in fact be partly that their diet is rich in fermented foods, wine, unpasteurised cheese, cultured butter as well as the variety of fruit and vegetables available. Unlike the American or British diet, more of their cheeses are made from unpasteurised milk. It is also more common for them to be made with either home developed starter cultures (rather than commercial ones) or indeed by simply souring the milk naturally. These more natural cheeses contain a greater diversity of bacteria than mass produced cheese and therefore, although the evidence isn’t there for it as studies have not been carried out, extrapolating from the analysis presented in Tim Spector’s book, the greater benefit to your own inner flora. In order to address whether these bacteria do indeed survive the conditions of the stomach, he carried out an ad hoc experiment on himself eating cheese for every meal and analysing gut content afterwards which did show an increase in lactobacillus. The fat content of the cheese and yoghurt, in fact protects the microbes from stomach acid and allows them to travel to the intestines. Obviously this isn’t a scientific study, but provides anecdotal evidence that your diet can implant beneficial bacteria into your gut and that this can affect your overall health. In the Twin Studies, Tim Spector found a correlation between bacterial biodiversity and mental health or the ability to maintain a healthy weight.
So while on the face of it, a high calorie food like unpasteurised cheese may appear to be something to limit in your diet, it is actually an important component if healthy body function is to be maintained. Unpasteurised cheese can be healthy.