Friday Favorites: Is Cheese Harmful or Healthy? Compared to What?

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What about the studies that show cheese has neutral or positive health effects?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

In a series of videos I did about saturated fat, I talked about a major campaign launched by the global dairy industry to “neutralise the negative image of milkfat among regulators and health professionals as related to heart disease.” That campaign continues, to this day, with the publication of a meta-analysis demonstrating “neutral (meaning non-harmful) associations between dairy products and cardiovascular [disease and death].”

Okay, well, first of all, how do we know the dairy industry had anything to do with this study? Well, it was published in a journal that forces authors to disclose financial conflicts of interest. Let’s see what they divulged. Dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy, the fourth largest dairy company in the world, dairy, dairy, milk, beer, soda, McDonald’s, dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy. Oh, and the study itself was explicitly funded by dairy, dairy, dairy. Okay, then.

The other big new one was this, suggesting that a little bit of cheese every day isn’t just neutral, but actually good for you. And they make it clear that they have “no conflict of interest;” they’re just employees of the Yili Innovation Center and the Yili R&D Center. You know, “China’s largest dairy producer”….making it one of the world’s largest dairy companies.

Okay, but how can cheese consumption be associated with better health outcomes? Well, most of these studies were from Europe, where cheese consumption is associated with a higher socioeconomic status. See, in Europe they’re not eating Cheez Whiz and Velveeta. “Cheese is generally an expensive product.”

And so, who eats cheese? Those with higher-paying jobs, higher socioeconomic strata, higher education levels—all of which are associated with better health outcomes, which may have nothing to do with their cheese consumption. Higher socioeconomic groups also consume more fruits and vegetables and more candies. So, I bet you could do a population study and show candy consumption is associated with better health. Shh, don’t tell the National Confectioner’s Association. Too late! Did you know that candy consumers have lower levels of inflammation, a “14% decreased risk of elevated…blood pressure”? Brought to you by the candy industry and the USDA, our government, which props up the sugar industry to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

It’s like when our tax dollars are used to buy up surplus cheese. Paul Shapiro wrote a great editorial. Imagine the headline “Government Buys $20 Million in Surplus Pepsi,” our hard-earned tax dollars “buying millions of unwanted cola cans, all as a favor to the flailing soda industry, which just kept producing drinks no one wanted. As outrageous as such a government handout to the soda industry would be, that’s exactly what the [USDA] is doing for the…dairy industry.”

Michele Simon did a great report on how our government colludes with the industry to “promote dairy junk foods.” The federal government administers “’check-off programs’ to promote milk and dairy.” McDonald’s has “six dedicated dairy checkoff program employees at its corporate headquarters” to try to squeeze in more cheese. That’s how we got “double steak quesadillas.” That’s how we got “3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza,” complete with a “Summer of Cheese.” “These funds are being used to promote junk foods, which contribute to the very diseases our federal government is allegedly trying to prevent. Does it make sense to tell Americans to avoid foods high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat, while engaging in the promotion of those same foods?”

Look: “The meat and dairy industries can do what they like with their own money. The public power of taxation should be used for the public good”—not to support the dairy and candy industries.

When industry-funded studies suggest their products have “neutral” health effects, or are even beneficial, one question you always have to ask is: “compared to what?” Is cheese healthy? Compared to what? If you’re sitting down to make a sandwich, cheese is probably healthy—compared to bologna—but compared to peanut butter? No way. That’s the point Walt Willett made, former chair of nutrition at Harvard. “To conclude that dairy foods are ‘neutral’ could be misleading,” as it could be misinterpreted “to mean that increasing consumption of dairy foods would have no effects on cardiovascular disease or mortality. Lost is that the health effects of increasing or decreasing consumption of dairy foods could depend importantly on the specific foods that are substituted for dairy foods.”

Like, what are you going to put on your salad? Cheese would be healthy compared to bacon, but not compared to nuts. See, “consumption of nuts or plant protein has [been found to be protectively] associated with risks of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes; in contrast, intake of red meat has been…associated with” increased risk. “Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the lack of association with dairy foods could put them somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of healthfulness, but [certainly] not an optimal source of energy or protein. More broadly, the available evidence supports policies that limit dairy production and encourages production of healthier sources of proteins and fats.”

He wasn’t just speculating. This was based on three famous Harvard studies involving hundreds of thousands of men and women exceeding five million “person-years of follow-up.” This was really “the first large-scale prospective study to examine dairy fat intake compared to other types of fat in relation to heart attack and stroke risk. So, replacing like 100 calories of fat worth of cheese with 100 calories of fat worth of peanut butter on a daily basis might reduce risk up to 24%, whereas substitution with other animal fats might make things worse. Here’s how it breaks down for heart disease. Swapping dairy fat for like vegetable oil would be associated with a decrease in disease risk, whereas swapping dairy for meat increases risk. Dairy fat calories may be as bad, or worse, as straight sugar. The lowest risk would entail swapping to a whole plant food, like whole grains.

Yeah, “dairy products are a major contributor to the saturated fat in the diet, and have thus been targeted as one of the main dietary causes of,” you know, the #1 killer of men and women. But the dairy industry likes to argue there are other things in dairy products, like fermentation byproducts in cheese that could counteract the saturated fat effects—all part of an explicit campaign by the dairy industry to “neutralise the negative image of milkfat among regulators and health professionals.”

If Global Dairy Platform looks familiar, they were one of the funders of the milk-and-dairy-is-neutral study, trotting out their dairy-fat-is-counteracted notion. To which the American Heart Association responds that “no information from controlled studies supports the [assertion] that fermentation adds beneficial nutrients to cheese that [somehow] counteract the harmful effects of its saturated fat.”

We need to cut down on dairy, meat, coconut oil no matter what their respective industries say. In fact, that’s the reason the American Heart Association felt that they needed to release this special Presidential Advisory in 2017. “We wanted to set the record straight on why well-conducted scientific research overwhelmingly supports limiting saturated fat in the diet.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image credit: lipefontes0 via Pixabay. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

In a series of videos I did about saturated fat, I talked about a major campaign launched by the global dairy industry to “neutralise the negative image of milkfat among regulators and health professionals as related to heart disease.” That campaign continues, to this day, with the publication of a meta-analysis demonstrating “neutral (meaning non-harmful) associations between dairy products and cardiovascular [disease and death].”

Okay, well, first of all, how do we know the dairy industry had anything to do with this study? Well, it was published in a journal that forces authors to disclose financial conflicts of interest. Let’s see what they divulged. Dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy, the fourth largest dairy company in the world, dairy, dairy, milk, beer, soda, McDonald’s, dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy, dairy. Oh, and the study itself was explicitly funded by dairy, dairy, dairy. Okay, then.

The other big new one was this, suggesting that a little bit of cheese every day isn’t just neutral, but actually good for you. And they make it clear that they have “no conflict of interest;” they’re just employees of the Yili Innovation Center and the Yili R&D Center. You know, “China’s largest dairy producer”….making it one of the world’s largest dairy companies.

Okay, but how can cheese consumption be associated with better health outcomes? Well, most of these studies were from Europe, where cheese consumption is associated with a higher socioeconomic status. See, in Europe they’re not eating Cheez Whiz and Velveeta. “Cheese is generally an expensive product.”

And so, who eats cheese? Those with higher-paying jobs, higher socioeconomic strata, higher education levels—all of which are associated with better health outcomes, which may have nothing to do with their cheese consumption. Higher socioeconomic groups also consume more fruits and vegetables and more candies. So, I bet you could do a population study and show candy consumption is associated with better health. Shh, don’t tell the National Confectioner’s Association. Too late! Did you know that candy consumers have lower levels of inflammation, a “14% decreased risk of elevated…blood pressure”? Brought to you by the candy industry and the USDA, our government, which props up the sugar industry to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

It’s like when our tax dollars are used to buy up surplus cheese. Paul Shapiro wrote a great editorial. Imagine the headline “Government Buys $20 Million in Surplus Pepsi,” our hard-earned tax dollars “buying millions of unwanted cola cans, all as a favor to the flailing soda industry, which just kept producing drinks no one wanted. As outrageous as such a government handout to the soda industry would be, that’s exactly what the [USDA] is doing for the…dairy industry.”

Michele Simon did a great report on how our government colludes with the industry to “promote dairy junk foods.” The federal government administers “’check-off programs’ to promote milk and dairy.” McDonald’s has “six dedicated dairy checkoff program employees at its corporate headquarters” to try to squeeze in more cheese. That’s how we got “double steak quesadillas.” That’s how we got “3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza,” complete with a “Summer of Cheese.” “These funds are being used to promote junk foods, which contribute to the very diseases our federal government is allegedly trying to prevent. Does it make sense to tell Americans to avoid foods high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat, while engaging in the promotion of those same foods?”

Look: “The meat and dairy industries can do what they like with their own money. The public power of taxation should be used for the public good”—not to support the dairy and candy industries.

When industry-funded studies suggest their products have “neutral” health effects, or are even beneficial, one question you always have to ask is: “compared to what?” Is cheese healthy? Compared to what? If you’re sitting down to make a sandwich, cheese is probably healthy—compared to bologna—but compared to peanut butter? No way. That’s the point Walt Willett made, former chair of nutrition at Harvard. “To conclude that dairy foods are ‘neutral’ could be misleading,” as it could be misinterpreted “to mean that increasing consumption of dairy foods would have no effects on cardiovascular disease or mortality. Lost is that the health effects of increasing or decreasing consumption of dairy foods could depend importantly on the specific foods that are substituted for dairy foods.”

Like, what are you going to put on your salad? Cheese would be healthy compared to bacon, but not compared to nuts. See, “consumption of nuts or plant protein has [been found to be protectively] associated with risks of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes; in contrast, intake of red meat has been…associated with” increased risk. “Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the lack of association with dairy foods could put them somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of healthfulness, but [certainly] not an optimal source of energy or protein. More broadly, the available evidence supports policies that limit dairy production and encourages production of healthier sources of proteins and fats.”

He wasn’t just speculating. This was based on three famous Harvard studies involving hundreds of thousands of men and women exceeding five million “person-years of follow-up.” This was really “the first large-scale prospective study to examine dairy fat intake compared to other types of fat in relation to heart attack and stroke risk. So, replacing like 100 calories of fat worth of cheese with 100 calories of fat worth of peanut butter on a daily basis might reduce risk up to 24%, whereas substitution with other animal fats might make things worse. Here’s how it breaks down for heart disease. Swapping dairy fat for like vegetable oil would be associated with a decrease in disease risk, whereas swapping dairy for meat increases risk. Dairy fat calories may be as bad, or worse, as straight sugar. The lowest risk would entail swapping to a whole plant food, like whole grains.

Yeah, “dairy products are a major contributor to the saturated fat in the diet, and have thus been targeted as one of the main dietary causes of,” you know, the #1 killer of men and women. But the dairy industry likes to argue there are other things in dairy products, like fermentation byproducts in cheese that could counteract the saturated fat effects—all part of an explicit campaign by the dairy industry to “neutralise the negative image of milkfat among regulators and health professionals.”

If Global Dairy Platform looks familiar, they were one of the funders of the milk-and-dairy-is-neutral study, trotting out their dairy-fat-is-counteracted notion. To which the American Heart Association responds that “no information from controlled studies supports the [assertion] that fermentation adds beneficial nutrients to cheese that [somehow] counteract the harmful effects of its saturated fat.”

We need to cut down on dairy, meat, coconut oil no matter what their respective industries say. In fact, that’s the reason the American Heart Association felt that they needed to release this special Presidential Advisory in 2017. “We wanted to set the record straight on why well-conducted scientific research overwhelmingly supports limiting saturated fat in the diet.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image credit: lipefontes0 via Pixabay. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video.

Doctor's Note

Everything we eat has an opportunity cost. Every time we put something in our mouths, it’s a lost opportunity to put something even healthier in our mouth.

Just because study is industry-funded doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad science, though. Check out How the Dairy Industry Designs Misleading Studies.

Here is the series I mentioned in the video:

If we don’t eat dairy, though, what about osteoporosis? Check out: Is Milk Good for Our Bones?

You may also be interested in this video on The Effects of Hormones in Dairy Milk on Cancer.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and to my audio podcast here (subscribe by clicking on your mobile device’s icon). 

The original videos aired on November 14 and 19, 2018

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