The findings of a cheese study making its rounds on the internet seem too gouda to be true: Could it be that full-fat, super-rich cheese really doesn’t increase your risk of heart attack or stroke, as the report in the European Journal of Epidemiology revealed on Tuesday?
We’re sorry to break it to you: That study kinda stinks.
It wasn’t wrong to think that the results of this study, which contradict years of research on the health effects of saturated fats in dairy, smelled a bit rank — and not in a good way. A deeper dip into the study reveals some holes in its legitimacy.
Under the “Funding” section at the end of the paper, the researchers note:
This meta-analysis was partly funded by an unrestricted grant from the Global Dairy Platform, Dairy Research Institute and Dairy Australia.
Of course, the researchers, led by nutritionists at Reading University, point out 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.” And, to be fair, just because the study was funded by pro-dairy groups doesn’t automatically mean that the science behind it was bad. But as anyone familiar with the world of smelly cheese knows, if something smells off, it’s worth investigating more closely before committing to it.
Here’s what the research entailed: It was a meta-analysis of 29 existing studies, carried out over the past 35 years, on the link between consuming dairy products (including high- and low-fat milk, fermented dairy, cheese, and yogurt) and an increased risk of death due to cardiovascular and heart problems. Altogether, the data covered 938,465 participants and 93,158 deaths. After a “comprehensive dose–response meta-analysis,” the researchers made their surprising conclusion: That there were “no associations” between dairy intake and mortality, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. They even found marginal evidence that consuming fermented products like yogurt was linked to the prevention of cardiovascular disease (“but the result was driven by a single study,” the researchers write).
The point of the study was to help clear up “new uncertainty about the effects of milk and dairy intake on human health.” In the article, the researchers point out that there have been plenty of contradictory studies in recent years, and that the health effects of dairy’s increasingly bad reputation could be serious. In an interview with The Guardian, study co-author and Reading University nutrition professor Ian Givens said that consumers were avoiding full-fat versions of dairy products to the point where they were getting too little dairy in general. “Young people, especially young women, were now often drinking too little milk as a result of that concern, which could damage the development of their bones and lead to conditions in later life including osteoporosis, or brittle bones,” the article read.
His concerns are valid, but it remains unclear how consumers should take the results of this study to heart. It’s worth considering what Marion Nestle, a renowned New York University nutrition professor and food science watchdog, reported in 2016: In her analysis of 168 industry-funded food studies, 156 had results favorable to the sponsor’s interests, while only 12 had negative results.
All this is to say: When you come across studies with conclusions that smell a bit funny, it’s probably best not to brieze past them without taking a closer sniff.