By Craig Weatherby
Could cheese be the missing piece in the “French paradox” puzzle?
That’s the provocative title of a paper published by researchers from a UK-based lab.
Judging by their findings, the answer may be a qualified “yes” … but it’s likely that pungent cheeses are just one piece, not “the” missing piece.
The French paradox
Despite French people’s tendency to eat foods high in saturated fats – such as cheese, foie gras, and butter – and to drink wine daily, they have low rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
This so-called “French paradox” has puzzled researchers for decades.
The French habit of relaxed, slow meals and modest portions – plus their liking for vegetables, olive oil, and red wine – may explain the paradox.
Light-to-moderate wine consumption has been linked to lower risk of chronic inflammation, heart disease, and certain cancers … likely due to red wine’s polyphenols, including resveratrol.
The average French citizen drank 46 liters (49 quarts) of wine in 2010, while Americans drank only 9.42 liters (10 quarts) in the same year.
Stinky cheese may play a paradoxical part
An examination of three pungent, fermented cheeses favored in France – Roquefort, Bleu, and Camembert – suggests that they may account for part of the French paradox.
UK-based researchers found that these cheeses contain peptides (bio-active protein fragments) that reduce blood pressure and key markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein (CRP).
The new findings apply only to these three rich, stinky cheeses. It remains to be seen whether they might apply to milder kinds like cheddar, Swiss, and American.
For millennia, global cultures hailed fermented foods as healthful and tasty, and found that fermentation kept foods edible longer … although they didn’t know why.
And we’re still a very long way from knowing the myriad ways in which bacterial cultures in fermented foods – and their metabolic byproducts, such as the peptides in cheese – affect human health.
The stinky cheese paradox: Rich, but healthful (in moderation)
For decades, cheese has been seen as a heart-attacker, because of its relatively high saturated fat and cholesterol content.
And high calorie intake – made more likely by a yen for fatty (hence, calorie-dense) foods such as cheese – can easily lead to obesity, which promotes diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
But even the rich, stinky cheeses in the new study don’t contribute an excess of calories, saturated fat, or cholesterol … if you limit consumption to an ounce or so per day.
The official 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend these daily limits for moderately active people aged 30-50 years:
Cholesterol - less than 300mg.
Saturated fats* - less than 10 percent of total daily calories.
Calories - Less than 2,000 (women) or 2,600 (men).
Sodium - Less than 2,300 mg (less than 1,500mg for children, people 51 and older, African Americans, and those with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease).
We should note that the evidence does not support undue fear of saturated fats, which vary widely in structure and in their impact on blood fat-cholesterol profiles. For example, the predominant saturated fat in chocolate and coconut (stearic acid) is very benign.
Also, moderate cholesterol intake is clearly not a heart risk … unless you are among the very few who cannot process dietary cholesterol properly.
By comparison, these are the amounts of calories, sodium, cholesterol, and saturated fat per oz of Roquefort, Bleu, and Camembert:
Calories range from 85 to 105
Sodium ranges from 200 to 600mg
Cholesterol ranges from 20 to 30mg
Saturated fat ranges from 4.3 to 5.5mg
These rich, stinky cheeses are fairly high in calories and fat ... but it appears that they can be healthful if you limit them to an ounce or two per day.
Colquhoun DM, Somerset S, Irish K, Leontjew LM. Cheese added to a low fat diet does not affect serum lipids. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2003;12 Suppl:S65.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Accessed at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf
Lippi G, Franchini M, Favaloro EJ, Targher G. Moderate red wine consumption and cardiovascular disease risk: beyond the "French paradox". Semin Thromb Hemost. 2010 Feb;36(1):59-70. doi: 10.1055/s-0030-1248725. Epub 2010 Apr 13. Review.
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Wu JM, Wang ZR, Hsieh TC, Bruder JL, Zou JG, Huang YZ. Mechanism of cardioprotection by resveratrol, a phenolic antioxidant present in red wine (Review). Int J Mol Med. 2001 Jul;8(1):3-17. Review.