Eating plenty of cheese is healthier than you think and does not necessarily increase your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, say scientists.
Researchers looked into the ‘French paradox’ where a high consumption of cheese is not linked to increased cardiovascular disease.
They discovered that some foods are healthier than you think because of different reactions between the chemicals in them - and any other product they are eaten with.
It means the benefits of a particular food can’t be calculated on the basis of its individual protein, fat and fibre.
Cheese for instance has a lesser effect on blood cholesterol than would be expected from its saturated fat.
The findings follow a controversial report last year suggesting avoiding butter, cream, cheese and other fatty foods is actually fuelling the obesity epidemic.
Now an international panel of medics - including epidemiologists and nutritionists - have added weight to the idea by saying it’s time to rethink food labelling.
They focused on dairy products - and the complex mixture of nutrients and bioactive substances, such as minerals and vitamins.
This can affect digestion - ultimately changing the overall nutritional and health properties of a particular food.
Yoghurt and cheese were more beneficial to bone health, body weight and the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases than would be expected from their saturated fat and calcium content.
This is despite the former being notoriously high in salt.
Professor Arne Astrup, head of nutrition, exercise and sports at Copenhagen University, who chaired the workshop of scientists, said cheese is a good example of how a food’s effect on health can’t be judged by single nutrients.
She said: “In contrast to current recommendations that essentially ban full-fat cheese, current research clearly demonstrate important health benefits of cheese for prevention of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers.
“All the positive effects are due to a complex interaction between beneficial bacteria, minerals and bio-active cheese ingredients.”
Another example is almonds which have been described as a ‘superfood’ - despite containing a lot of fat.
This is because they release less during digestion than would be expected.
The study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said food must be evaluated as a whole - rather than individual nutrients.
It said the composition of a food can alter the properties of the nutrients contained within it,
This cannot be predicted on the basis of an analysis of the individual nutrients because there are interactions that are significant for their overall effect on health.
Study leader Dr Tanja Kongerslev Thorning, of Copenhagen University, said we consume foods and meals - not nutrients.
She explained scientists have long wondered why the actual effects of a food are at variance with those expected on the basis of its nutrition content.
She said: “Researchers have become more skilful over the years, and we have acquired more methods for exploring what specific nutrients mean for digestion and health.
“But when we eat, we do not consume individual nutrients. We eat the whole food. Either alone or together with other foods in a meal. It therefore seems obvious that we should assess food products in context.”
Ultimately this means the composition of a food can alter the properties of the nutrients contained within it.
Dr Thorning said: “Another example is almonds, which contain a lot of fat, but which release less fat than expected during digestion, even when chewed really well.
“The effects on health of a food item are probably a combination of the relationship between its nutrients, and also of the methods used in its preparation or production.
“This means some foods may be better for us, or less healthy, than is currently believed.”
Professor Ian Givens, a nutritionist at Reading University who co-chaired the group, said the findings shed fresh light on the ‘French paradox’ of high cheese consumption failing to fuel a hike in cardiovascular disease.
He said the team pooled data from studies carried out mainly in Denmark which suggested hard cheese - in particular - had protective effects.
Prof Givens said: “Hard cheese is more than 30 percent fat but we think because of its combination of nutrients a higher proportion passes straight through the gut - meaning it’s not stored by the body.
“More studies are needed, but ultimately it seems some areas of nutrition science need to be rethought.
“We cannot focus on a nutrient without looking at how it is consumed - and what else is eaten at the same time.”