Doctors and nutritionists have long recommended avoiding all animal fats to trim cholesterol, but Danish researchers say cheese may not be so bad, and probably shouldn't be placed in the same category as butter.
According to their study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who ate daily servings of cheese for six-week intervals had lower LDL cholesterol, the so-called"bad" cholesterol, than when they ate a comparable amount of butter.
The cheese eaters also did not have higher LDL during the experiment than when they ate a normal diet.
"Cheese lowers LDL cholesterol when compared with butter intake of equal fat content and does not increase LDL cholesterol compared with a habitual diet," wrote Julie Hjerpsted and her colleagues, from the University of Copenhagen.
The group surveyed about 50 people. Each person was put on a controlled diet and added a measured amount of cheese or butter daily.
Throughout, each participant was compared against his or herself, to follow changes in the body caused by the foods.
Researchers gave each person cheese or butter, both made from cows milk, equal to 13 per cent of their daily energy consumption from fat.
During six-week intervals, each person ate the set amount of cheese or butter, separated by a 14-day cleansing period which they returned to their normal diet. Then they switched, and for six weeks those who had eaten the cheese before, ate butter, while the butter eaters in the first phase ate cheese.
Despite eating more fat than had been in their normal diet, the cheese eaters showed no increase in LDL or total cholesterol. While eating butter, however, the same subjects had LDL levels about seven per cent higher on average.
While eating cheese, subjects' HDL or "good" cholesterol dropped slightly compared with when they ate butter, but not compared with their normal eating period.
The researchers speculated that there could be several reasons why cheese affected people differently than butter. But there is nothing conclusive in the study, which was supported by the Danish Dairy Board and the National Dairy Research Institute.
For one, cheese has a lot of calcium, which has been shown to increase the amount of fat excreted by the digestive tract. Researchers did detect a little more fecal fat during the time the group ate cheese, but the amounts were not statistically significant.
Other possible explanations involve the large amount of protein in cheese and its fermentation process, both of which could affect the way it's digested compared to butter.
Elizabeth Jackson, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Health Systems, told Reuters Health that the study was well done but does not really change what cardiologists currently recommend.
"We want people to have a diet focused on whole grains and vegetables and moderate fats," said Jackson, who was not involved in the study.
"In terms of cheese, anything in moderation," she added.