By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
The French love their cheese. According to new government statistics, the French eat on average half a kilo of cheese each and every week. That's 1.1 pounds of cheese for every man, woman and child in France.
You have to actually visit France to understand the love affair between the French and cheese. Cheese making is an art form, passed down from generation to generation, the savoir-faire as much a part of the inheritance as grandfather's house or grandmother's armoire.
One clue to how much to French adore cheese is an old saying " "Un homme qui n’aime pas le fromage ne peut être bien au lit" " which means "a man who doesn't love cheese can't be good in bed".
The French eat more cheese than any other people on Earth. The next highest consumers are in Iceland (they eat almost as much as the French) and in Finland. In case you're wondering, the US in in 10th place, with an average cheese consumption of 15.5kg (33.8 pounds) per person each year. Our friends in the UK, eat 11.6 kg (25.2 pounds) per person annually, according to the International Dairy Federation.
But, despite eating cheese every single day of the year, the French are remarkably long-lived. They perennially top the list of the longest living people in Europe, occasionally bumped off their perch by other Mediterranean neighbors.
How do they do it? Is there something about cheese that we don't know?
The answer here is "yes", we in the US have judged cheese by its reputation as an artery-clogger without taking into account plenty of the healthful aspects of eating cheese.
Cheese --- An Under-appreciated Health Food?
Cheese and "healthy" don't often appear in the same sentence. But that may be changing.
In 2015, scientists from two universities in Denmark conducted a study of how cheese affects cardiovascular disease. The scientists, from Department of Food Science of Aarhus University and the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen had a theory in mind.
They wanted to test how eating different diets with different types of dairy affected the body's production of certain chemicals linked to cardiovascular disease.
To see whether cheese was somehow different from diets rich in other dairy products, the scientists assembled 15 participants and gave them 3 different diets for 14 days.
Those in the first group had diets that included milk.
Those in the second group ate diets rich in
And those in the third group ate diets rich in cheese.
Then 14 days passed and the scientists collected urine and fecal samples from the 15 participants.
What they found was unexpected. The group which ate the cheese had the best overall cardiovascular profile, as measured by the types of chemicals present in their urine and feces.
Specifically, those who ate cheese or drank milk showed lower levels of urinary choline and a compound called " trimethylamineoxide" often abbreviated as "TMAO". TMAO is a bad actor. When you eat fatty foods such as red meat, TMAO acts as a ferry boat carrying cholesterol directly into your arteries. So, in general, the less TMAO hanging around in your body, the better off your heart and arteries will be.
Those who ate cheese also showed higher levels of acetate, propionate, and lipids in their feces. Both these findings mean that the groups had higher metabolisms and lower levels of fat in their blood than those who did not eat cheese or drink milk.
Cheese was better than milk at reducing levels of citrate, creatine, and creatinine. The lower creatinine levels mean that the kidneys were not taxed as hard by the diet. Finally, the cheese eaters showed higher levels of metabolites found in your gut including butyrate, hippurate, and malonate.
From these findings, the scientists believe that cheese helps to change the way that bacteria in your gut work to break down animal fats and other foods. In doing so, cheese boosts your metabolism and lowers body fat over time.
Really? I have serious side-eye questions about this study. First, it was funded by a dairy company. Second, the sample size was only 15 people. We can't draw any conclusions and broadly apply them the billions of the rest of us on the planet from a study with a mere 15 people. So, we'll need larger studies to repeat the results before we can rely on them.
Finally, all of these studies that try to decipher why this or that food helps the French to live longer miss the forest for the trees. Having spent quite a bit of time in France, I can tell you that it's the entire French way of life that keeps them living longer. Before and after they eat that piece of cheese, you won't find them lying around on a couch. They eat fresh vegetables, walk or bike everywhere and live life actively.
All these things help. And yes, just maybe the Camembert, Roquefort and Brie cheese help a little bit too.