Salt in cheese might not be bad for you

Cheese platter
Cheese platter Photo: Theresa Ambrose

Cheese lovers, the news you've long been waiting for has arrived - that evening wedge of brie could now be considered a healthy snack option after all.

A new study has revealed the antioxidant properties found in the protein of  dairy cheese could actually protect the heart against sodium.

The research, conducted by Penn State University, had participants consume either dairy cheese or other salty snacks (pretzels and soy cheese) over a short period of time and found those who ate cheese didn't experience the cardiovascular effects of sodium consumption, such as high blood pressure.

Mozzarella
Mozzarella 

This likely comes as welcome news to Australians, with us currently consuming an average of 13.9 kilograms of cheese per person each year. But it also makes it a topical debate too with salt intake also on the rise.

On average we consume 8-9 grams of salt a day while guidelines recommend 6g. With heart disease still the leading cause of death in Australia and salt a major contributor, the Federal Government is now planning a scheme to reduce our salt intake of 30 per cent by 2025. Which begs the question - will we have to cut back on cheese?

The short answer - no. According to Food Standards, only 5 per cent of our salt intake comes from cheese, with other salty foods the likely culprit affecting heart health. But the study is cause for serious consideration - just how good is cheese for our heart health?

Goat's cheese
Goat's cheese 

Chief Medical advisor of the Heart Foundation Professor Gary Jennings believes from a medical stand point, the study should not be taken verbatim.

"While they compared food with the same salt content, the only conclusion was that cheese did not affect the blood flow as much as the others," says Jennings. "Further, the test only evaluated skin blood vessels - which do not get atherosclerosis (the underlying cause of most heart and vascular disease) so it's unlikely it could determine whether salt with (or without) cheese is good for the heart," says Jennings.

Dr Arthur Nasis, head of Acute Services at MonashHeart also believes the blood research to be a flaw.  

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"The study only measured small blood vessel (microvascular) function of acute cheese consumption in the short-term. It did not show improvement in cardiovascular endpoints like rates of death, heart attack, stroke, blood pressure or cholesterol levels – markers that are clinically more meaningful."

Additionally he notes that the positive results may not be a direct indicator of dairy itself.

"Dairy cheese has a higher protein content than soya, so perhaps protein from other non-dairy sources (or the fat or carbohydrate makeup) could similarly improve short-term microvascular function."

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 26: Cheese Board from the Sydney Royal Beer & Wine Garden at the Royal Easter Show on March ...
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 26: Cheese Board from the Sydney Royal Beer & Wine Garden at the Royal Easter Show on March 26, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Christopher Pearce/Fairfax Media) Photo: Christopher Pearce

Leticia De Nardi, dietitian at Nutrition Australia says it's too early to take the study too seriously. "It was a small sample and only looked at healthy older adults so it can't be a recommendation for the general population."

However, on the other side of the cheese debate, Arne Astrup, Head Professor of the Nutrition, Exercise and Sports Department at the University of Copenhagen believes cheese is a healthy heart choice.

"While it's just one study, it fits well with others that show cheese is not increasing risk blood pressure or cardiovascular disease – it's doing the opposite," says Astrup. "Population studies have found those who have a high intake of cheese have less cardiovascular disease and hypertension during their life than those who don't eat cheese."

So, should we turn to dairy cheese for a 'healthier' dose of sodium? "It's perhaps not such a bad idea," says Astrup.

Sydney dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan also agrees there's no real harm in incorporating cheese as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

"I don't think sodium is good for the heart, rather it's not harmful when consumed in cheese. In other words, the benefits to vascular health from the cheese are balancing the effects of the sodium," says McMillan.

Mcmillan also says it's a clear indication we should look at the total package of its ingredients, rather than believing fads and cutting dairy all together.

"When you consume cheese whole, its saturated fat does not raise LDL cholesterol - but extract the fat and eat it as butter and it does," says McMillan. "This study adds to growing evidence that full fat dairy can be healthy and we needn't worry about sodium or saturated fat on its own – it's the sodium in highly processed foods that are the problem."

Astrup also agrees sodium needn't be the focus of cheese. "The take home message is - cheese contains calcium and peptides that reduce blood pressure and these compounds are more important than sodium."

As for which cheese is best? McMillan says it depends on your requirements: "Hard cheeses such as parmesan and cheddar are high in calcium, soft rind cheeses like brie may benefit the body thanks to its bacteria and fermentation and cottage and ricotta are low kilojoule and great for protein."

It can also depend on what you're making. "Mozzarela is good for sandwiches (it has less fat than cheddar or tasty cheese), haloumi is great for salads or as a snack and ricotta works well as a spread or ingredient in dips," says De Nardi.

But, it's a long life you're after, aged cheese such as cheddar, gruyere, manchego, gouda and parmesan may be the answer. A new Nature Medicine study found aged cheese contains 'spermidine,' an ingredient found to increase the lifespan of mice. While it's yet to be proven in humans, if science requires us to indulge in a regular cheese board (sans the salty crackers)…where do we sign up?