Good Calories Bad Calories

Dairy’s new dawn: too early for real change?

Burgeoning scientific evidence that dairy and saturated fat may not be as bad for us (and better for us) than we thought is undoubtedly good news for the dairy industry. But this is brand new science, and saturated fats and dairy aren’t going to become the good guys overnight in the mindsets of consumers and even much of the scientific and health professional community. So until perceptions change, the dairy industry is concentrating its efforts on “low hanging fruit” such as sodium-reduction to polish its health credentials.

Science writer Gary Taubes meticulous examination of the science around dietary fat and heart disease has won him worldwide recognition. His book has been instrumental in challenging many people’s perspectives – and has made him popular with the dairy industry.

First published in New Nutrition Business, March 2011 Newsletter, by Dale Buss

After decades in which many health professionals have advised people to reduce their consumption of dairy products because of the presence of saturated fat, dairy is possibly facing a new dawn.

“A lot of positive research has emerged recently that is beginning to change perceptions in the health and science community about dairy foods and saturated fats,” said Gregory Miller, executive vice president of research, regulatory and scientific affairs for Dairy Management Inc, a not-for-profit marketing arm of the US dairy industry based in Rosemont, Ill.

Donald Moore, the executive director of Global Dairy Platform, a not-for-profit advocacy organization founded by some of the world’s leading dairy entities, noted that “health professionals and regulators have put saturated fats out there as a bogeyman, and something to be avoided, for many years”. But, he said, “the breaking science about saturated fats is relatively new news, and at this point there’s a degree of confusion even among regulators about how they should be approaching this.”
As two of the leading figures behind the change in perceptions, Miller and Moore hardly are dispassionate observers. But some independent experts agreed that dairy – particularly saturated fats – has been overvilified and now is regaining some measure of nutritional respect.


Dairy is “much better perceived as being positive in health benefits than 10 or 20 years ago,” said Michael Zemel, a University of Kentucky professor – unaffiliated with any dairy interests – whose research continues to find redeeming nutritional qualities and even medical efficacy from dairy components, especially calcium and possibly including saturated fats.

The swing back toward a more balanced view of consuming saturated fats has been a long time in the making.

“Over the last 30 years there has always been some ingredient that people wanted to demonize,” said Brian Wansink, director of the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University. “It was sugar. Now it’s fat and saturated fat. But it’s certainly not as bad as it’s made out to be.”

Here’s a sampling of recent research that buttresses Wansink’s contention about saturated fats:

• Saturated fats aren’t bad per se. Assuming that saturated fat “at any intake level is harmful is an oversimplification and not supported by scientific evidence,” said J. Bruce German, a University of California at Davis professor and chemist, during a late-2009 symposium in Orlando.

• Their role in cardiovascular disease is dubious. A recent review of research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition pooled results of 17 studies and found no association between high intakes of either regular-fat or lowfat dairy products and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. There are even suggestions of a protective effect because certain nutrients in dairy have a beneficial impact on blood pressure.

• They may actually help prevent strokes. Saturated fatty acid intake was inversely associated with mortality from a total stroke according to a Japanese cohort study that appeared in August in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.


Yet there continues to be strong resistance in the scientific and media realms to the notion that dairy fats could be anything other than harmful to human health.
Walter Willett, for instance, is one of the most highly regarded nutritional experts in America by the scientific establishment and mainstream media, and the chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard Public School of Health; he categorically told New Nutrition Business that the “ optimal diet will be low in saturated fat, including dairy fat and red meat fat”.

Many other doctors and scientists continue to stick with resolute opposition to saturated fats. They “have caused our nation’s current health crisis,” said Dr. John McDougall, for example, who treats the obese at his clinic in Santa Rosa, Calif., with a low-fat, low-starch, vegetarian diet. “Saturated fats and trans fats have a reputation for causing serious illness, including atherosclerosis and cancer.”

Thanks in part to such charged rhetoric on both sides of the debate, saturated fats also have emerged as a major flash point – along with the obesity epidemic, and sugary soft drinks – in the emerging reality that “nutrition science is beginning to be guided by emotion, perceptions, and public-health advocacy, and is stepping away from data and science,” according to Cathy Kapica, senior vice president of health and wellness for Ketchum, a Chicago-based marketing firm that counts several major CPG companies among its clientele.

One of the most recent examples of this phenomenon was a story in the November 6 New York Times that was positioned as a major exposé of federal-government hypocrisy. The thesis: that even as the Obama administration has prioritized its fight against obesity, the Agriculture Department and other federal entities still promote dairy fat to the food industry and to the American people, in part because they still pay subsidies to US farmers to produce high-fat milk.

The biggest problem with the story is that it made not a single mention of the reams of recent research suggesting that, in a number of ways, animal fats may not be the villains presented by conventional wisdom.

Professor Zemel felt victimized by the story’s depiction of his research mainly as a springboard for a Dairy Management campaign to depict the weight-loss benefits of dairy. “It bothered me,” Zemel said “because my perception was that [the author] was a careful reporter. But he made me look like a jackass.”
Of course, there are at least two different referenda concerning dairy products that are ongoing in America – and only one involves the scientific and nutritional community and the mainstream media.

The other vote on dairy is occurring in the marketplace, and in that arena, dairy interests are definitely scoring some points, especially with cheese, yogurt and other non-liquid products. “The good news,” Miller said, “is that we’re doing well in the marketplace.” Here are some other major dynamics in the continuing battle over saturated fats:


Even the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for 2010 went easier on dairy products and saturated fats than many critics would have liked. The group recommended a new standard calling for saturated fat not to exceed 7% of total calories – about 15.6g in a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. The average American’s intake has remained about 11% to 12% of calories for at least 15 years.

Though reducing obesity was the central mission of the new guidelines, and the panel cited the role of saturated fats in increasing “adiposity”, their conclusions stayed away from roundly condemning dairy products. The group didn’t even change the previous US-government recommendation.


Much of the debate about the role of saturated fats in the diet focuses on whether it’s a lesser evil than what might replace it. Professor Thomas Pearson, of the Dietary Guidelines advisory committee, said one of the committee’s biggest concerns was “saturated fats reduction and its adequate replacement – rather than just saturated-fats reduction”.

Willett, who was not a committee member, echoed that concern. “The key is what replaces saturated fat,” he said. “If it is refined starch and sugar, there will be no benefit. However, if it is replaced by unsaturated fats, such as in liquid vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados, there will be important health benefits. The evidence from controlled feeding studies, randomized trials with heart disease as the endpoint, and long-term epidemiologic studies is totally consistent with this conclusion.”

The main problem has been that, over the decades of disfavour with animal fats, food and beverage companies have tended to substitute carbohydrates for saturated fats.

“If you’re a food formulator, you’ve been developing out of fat and replacing it with carbohydrates,” said Moore, of the Global Dairy Platform. “So we’ve ended up with more carbohydrates, particularly sugars, as we’ve taken fat out.”

And that’s posed perhaps a bigger problem than if the saturated fats were just left alone. Replacing saturated fat with mono-unsaturated fat yielded uncertain effects on cardiovascular-disease risk, found a research review by Dariush Mozaffarian, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. But replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates – especially starches or sugars – was found to be ineffective and even harmful.

So, Mozaffarian said, it’s far better to focus on positive nutrients for cardio health, such as omega-3s and whole grains – and on reducing trans fats and sodium – than on replacing saturated fats in the diet.


If there can be said to be a consensus emerging, it is that moderation in saturatedfat consumption is a good thing, but that doesn’t necessarily require moderation in dairy consumption. Reduced- and lowfat products have a bright future in this construct.

“We’re actually quite strong in terms of recommending low-fat dairy products, and the protein, calcium and vitamin D in dairy,” said Pearson. “We’re not anti-dairy. And if [US] farmers weren’t paid for the percentage of their milk fat, the industry probably could have a little better view of the selling of healthful foods.

“They don’t have to sell the fat; it’s an artifact of the market. A gallon of skim milk should be the prized nutrient. But things have gotten away from that. The situation with fat is to find some uses for it other than human consumption.”


Dairy interests continue to promote the notion, backed with research, that milk in a diet can actually help promote weight loss. They are also emphasizing the importance of the calcium and vitamin D in milk, along with other components, in children’s diets. And they are heavily promoting milk as an effective alternative to sports drinks for “recovery” from workout and athletic events.

Recent Israeli research, for example, found that dieters who consumed milk in their diet lost more weight than non-milk drinkers, regardless of what else was in their diets, reported Dr. Timothy Johnson, the lead medical correspondent for ABC News.

Professor Zemel’s research, in part, aims to understand what has made milk such a nutritional staple over the centuries and perhaps to restore some balance to how it is perceived.

“The counterintuitive point about dairy these days is that it has been a mainstay of American dietary recommendations for many decades,” he said. “It’s an easy straw man to knock down when you’re looking for something. When the low-fat era hit us, dairy became an easy target because many dairy foods have higher-than-recommended levels of fat. So, well, ‘Dairy must make you fat.’ That’s where the counterintuitive argument comes in.”


On the other hand, a new tactic being adopted by Dairy Management is to attempt to deal with the dietary drawbacks of dairy products that can be addressed without altering their fundamental nature. Cheese, for example, isn’t edible to most people without sufficient fat. Non-fat cheese analogs have been attempted for decades without making much of a dent in the US market. However, with cheese, sodium content is quite another thing altogether.

Dairy Management believes that dairy interests have a lot of room to cut sodium in cheese and that it would be advantageous to the industry if it could do so, given that sodium reduction in all foods has become a major push in the government’s antiobesity initiative – and was a significant recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines committee.

So recently, major cheese producers including Kraft and Sargento agreed to an “audit” to determine actual sodium content of their cheeses and whether they were labeled accurately.

“We discovered a lot of discrepancies in how cheese was labeled for sodium,” said Barb O’Brien, president of the Innovation Center for US Dairy, a two-year-old Dairy Management affiliate. “There was a lot of over-estimation of sodium levels versus what was actually in the product.” And there was a lot of variability among brands. It turned out that, for the most part, cheeses actually for sale were below stated sodium content but that manufacturers labeled their products conservatively for sodium because they didn’t want to be found by regulators to be exceeding sodium limits. Now, manufacturers are pondering how to reduce variability in sodium content so that they can cut the amount of labeled sodium in their products – and, presumably, take credit for sodium reductions.

“It is low-hanging fruit,” Miller explained.


Despite the fact that aggressiveness by the dairy industry has finally muddied the one-sided science on saturated fats in the diet, it isn’t yet time for milk-product manufacturers to take the offensive on behalf of animal fats.

Kapica said that “the whole issue of saturated fats is so ingrained in people that it’s going to take a lot of data” to change the minds of consumers, and of many scientists and nutritionists. “It’s still a complicated story.”

Added Moore: “I don’t believe consumers are quite enough aware yet” of the burgeoning scientific evidence against the idea of villainous saturated fat “that companies could start in all confidence formulating full-fat products again. We’re not going to see that kind of shift until we see a shift in opinion leaders and in the regulatory world on saturated fat.

“If you’re a marketer, the last thing you do at this point is take a stand on this issue, especially if you’re a large company.”

NNB CoverAbout New Nutrition Business

Julian MellentinNew Nutrition Business is a London-based research, publishing and consulting company which specialises in researching, analysing and forecasting developments in the business of food, nutrition and health around the world.

The strategies and success factors it  has identified in the 1990s have become the benchmarks for strategy development and brand positioning in the worldwide nutrition business. It works with companies all around the world, from the United States to Australia and from Sweden to South Africa.

New Nutrition Business is headed by executive director Julian Mellentin (right), one of the world’s very few global specialists in the business of food, nutrition and health.

He is the editor-in-chief of New Nutrition Business and Kids Nutrition Report, the only industry journal in the world on the rapidly developing kids’ nutritional marketplace. See

Julian Mellentin can be reached at [email protected]