Feb. 28 2013 11:52 AM

Research is challenging the long-held dogma on the relationship between saturated fat, milkfat and cardiovascular disease.

by Amanda Smith, Hoard's Dairyman Associate Editor

For over half a century, the concept of healthy eating has become synonymous with avoiding fat, especially saturated fats, noted Adam Lock, Michigan State University, at the Southwest Nutrition and Management Conference. He went on to add that current investigations now show this conclusion and subsequent advice was based on incomplete and in some cases, flawed science.

In essence saturated fats have been demonized as a major cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Evidence available today, however, demonstrates that the proportion of total energy from fat or saturated fat is largely unrelated to the risk of cardiovascular disease or other chronic diseases. More than 270 risk factors for heart disease are known. Genetics and smoking, not the consumption of dairy foods, are the biggest risk factors.

Public health organizations around the world include milk and other dairy products in their recommendations for a healthy well-balanced diet. Despite being a dense source of nutrients in the diet, dairy products are a major contributor of saturated fats accounting for 20 to 30 percent of the saturated fat intake in the U.S. diet. Cheese is the primary source of dietary saturated fats.

New research has demonstrated the important role that milk and dairy products play in health maintenance and the prevention of chronic diseases. A meta-analysis of 21 epidemiologic studies indicated that there is no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with an elevated risk of coronary heart disease or CVD.

In a multi-ethnic study examining the relationship between consumption of saturated dairy fat and CVD, researchers concluded that a higher intake of saturated fat was associated with a lower CVD risk. Importantly, the association depended on the food source, with the consumption of dairy saturated fat being inversely associated with risk. These findings raise the possibility that associations of foods that contain saturated fat with health may depend on the fatty acids present in these foods.

A concurrent study found a reduction in CVD risk in subjects with the highest dairy consumption relative to those with the lowest intake. A number of additional studies published within the past decade continue to confirm these results.

Overall, the science clearly demonstrates the importance of milk and dairy products in development, health maintenance and the prevention of chronic diseases.

To view our tweets from the Southwest Nutrition and Management Conference, click here. Search for #swdairy13.