The internet went wild this week over a new study that suggests eating dairy products like cheese might be healthier than we thought.
Headlines like “Eating cheese does not raise risk of heart attack or stroke, study finds” were published multiple times. But those reactions are oversimplified and the actual research should be taken with a heavy dose of skepticism, according to experts.
“I rolled my eyes at this study,” Christopher Gardner, a nutrition scientist at Stanford University, told HuffPost.
Not only is the report funded by organizations associated with the dairy industry, the study simply didn’t reach the conclusion media reports say it did, Gardner said.
The study wasn’t designed to make diet recommendations
In a meta-analysis, researchers examined 29 old studies, which contained nearly 1 million participants total among them, to understand how consuming dairy can affect human health. Then the researchers looked over the combined data to draw conclusions.
“We need to take this meta-analysis with a grain of salt,” James J. DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist and author of the upcoming book The Salt Fix, told HuffPost. “[The study] is based on observational studies not randomized controlled trials so it cannot prove causation.”
In other words, there’s no definitive way to say that eating cheese did or did not cause cardiovascular health issues because this wasn’t specifically tested. Instead, it found that people who reported often eating tiny amounts of dairy are not any more or less likely to experience poor cardiovascular health or death by heart disease.
People with heart issues were excluded from the findings
In meta-analyses, researchers can cherry pick which papers to include and exclude in their analysis. In this case, the scientists excluded any study in which participants had prior cases of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or other chronic disease, Gizmodo reported.
This means many people who are predisposed to heart issues were not considered in the study’s finding.
It’s also important to note that dairy is broad in the context of this research. The study examined people who consumed low-fat cheese, high-fat cheese, yogurt and milk to build out the dairy category. The researchers then essentially conclude that dairy is neither good or bad, and that there is not an association between dairy and cardiovascular death.
And when the scientists weren’t able to find a statistically significant association between dairy and cardiovascular death ― which is why they called it a “neutral” finding, the takeaway from the media became that dairy is “healthy,” Gardner explained.
“It’s quite a leap,” he said.
It was funded by the dairy industry
There’s also the conflict of interest issue. The study is funded by three dairy industry companies: Global Dairy Platform, Dairy Research Institute and Dairy Australia.
The study authors note that “the funders had no role in the study design, data collection, data analysis and results interpretation, writing of the report or the decision to submit the article for publication.” But experts still say consumers should take caution.
“I always take any type of study that’s funded by the industry with grain of salt and doubt some of the results,” Dana Hunnes, a senior dietician at UCLA Medical Center, told HuffPost.
The portion size was way off
Finally, the study authors used very modest portion sizes to draw conclusions, from 20 grams of fermented cheese ― less than a single string cheese stick ― to one glass of milk. Given this, it is no surprise that the scientists did not find a negative or positive correlation between dairy and cardiovascular disease, according to Hunnes.
“[That is] not even equivalent to an ounce of cheese,” she said.
This makes sense: Nutritional guidelines consistently recommend moderation. But let’s be real: Who is eating a single sliver of cheese? Certainly not the average American, who is eating more cheese than ever ― or about 23 pounds of the stuff every year.
So, can you eat this brie or not?
Live your life, but don’t use this research as an excuse to pile it on.
Data shows that saturated fat found in cheese and dairy can raise cholesterol levels, and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association.
“[This research] doesn’t turn over the fact that saturated fat raises your LDL cholesterol,” Gardner said. “We’re really worried how it’s going be interpreted if this [perceived] lack of harm found using this type of analysis is a vindication for piling it on. But we really do want you to enjoy your food and we want it to be consistent with the science.”
Gardner says rather than get caught up in specific ingredients, consume reasonably-sized portions of both nutritious foods and indulgent foods like cheese.
And truly savor that serving. After all, it’s delicious.