Nearly 610,000 people die each year from heart disease, which accounts for 25% of all deaths in the U.S.1 Each year 735,000 have a heart attack; in this group, it was the first cardiac event for 525,000 of them. According to the American Heart Association, the annual cost of cardiovascular disease and stroke was estimated at $351.2 billion in 2014-2015.2
The American Heart Association also reports that 116.4 million Americans have high blood pressure and that someone dies of a stroke every 3.7 minutes.3 Individuals who have high blood pressure or diabetes, as well as those who are physically inactive, overweight or obese have the highest risk.4
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10% of the U.S. population has diabetes and up to 95% of those have Type 2 diabetes.5 Symptoms may develop over several years and may be difficult to spot: As your pancreas produces insulin, the cells do not respond, which increases blood glucose levels.
Although many who are diagnosed are 45 years and older, as the rates of childhood obesity have risen, so has the rate of Type 2 diabetes in young people. Of the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S.,6 heart disease and diabetes are the leading or contributing factors in five. In the past few decades scientists have focused on how to reduce the risk of acquiring these conditions.
Inverse Link Between Fermented Dairy and Heart Disease
Two recent studies have demonstrated an inverse relationship between the daily amount of fermented dairy consumed and the development of heart disease. A similar link was found in studies analyzing the dietary effects in men7 and women.8
The studies were undertaken by two different teams. The first was completed by researchers at the University of Eastern Finland and published in mid-2018 in the British Journal of Nutrition.9 Researchers asked whether fermented dairy products offered protective effects for cardiovascular health.
They compared fermented and unfermented dairy products in 1,981 men enrolled in the Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study; none had coronary heart disease upon enrollment. The researchers recorded fatal and nonfatal heart events and dietary intake, including fermented and unfermented dairy products, during a mean follow-up of 20 years.
They found those who had the highest intake of fermented products had a 27% lower risk of heart disease; this was contrasted by those who had the highest intake of unfermented dairy products and suffered a 52% higher risk of heart disease. In this study, milk was the unfermented product most often consumed. The researchers used a measurement of 0.9 liters (3.8 cups) or more each day as a high amount.10
Authors of a recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition11 also analyzed the relationship between fermented dairy products and cardiovascular disease, this time in an Australian population. Using the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, researchers enrolled 7,633 women without heart disease and followed them for 15 years, using surveys to ascertain dietary intake and self-reported outcomes.
They found a high intake of yogurt and fermented dairy products was associated with a lower risk of heart disease. They acknowledged that in previous studies, this inverse relationship with risk was not detected. However, in the past, the outcome that was measured was mortality, as opposed to the current study in which a new onset of diagnosed cardiovascular disease was the measured outcome.
It’s also worth noting that the types of unfermented dairy counted in the survey included various milk products such as full cream milk, reduced fat milk, skim milk, soy milk and flavored milk.
Link With Type 2 Diabetes Not Found in Australian Study
In the Australian study evaluating the effect of fermented and unfermented dairy products on women’s health, researchers also looked at Type 2 diabetes. Of the women who did not have diabetes at the start of the study, 9.2% — 701 — developed the disease during the 15-year follow-up period.
The researchers found that women who ate the highest amount of yogurt had the lowest adjusted odds of Type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the least. However, once the data were adjusted for other dietary variables, along with total energy intake, the relationship was no longer significant.12
Those who ate the most yogurt consumed an average of 114 grams per day. To put this in perspective, individual containers of Yoplait yogurt contain 6 ounces or 170 grams.13 The label indicates one serving of this brand is 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
However, as reported by a study team from Harvard University,14 “… a higher intake of yogurt is associated with a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes.” The team followed 194,458 men and women over 3,984,203 person years and found that yogurt did not increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes but, rather, eating one serving a day reduced the risk of the disease.
Differences in Raw and Pasteurized Milk
Although the authors of the Australian study found that women who drank the greatest amount of unfermented milk products had a higher association with heart disease, as I already mentioned, the data were based on women who regularly drank several types of milk, including full fat, low-fat and soy. To that end, I feel that it’s important to note that data from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, published in The Lancet15 reveal vastly different results.
The PURE study was a large, multinational investigation with individuals from 21 countries across five continents. Researchers compared the consumption of whole fat dairy products to rates of cardiovascular disease and mortality. They gathered records over the course of 15 years and found that when individuals only ate full fat dairy, they had a reduced risk of death and major heart disease events.
However, not all full-fat dairy products are created equally. U.S. government agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture argue that drinking unpasteurized raw milk may be a ticket to disease and death.
But the reason milk products are pasteurized and heated to kill bacteria is because, without pasteurization, that bacteria often find their way into the milk as a result of the dreadful conditions cows in which concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) live and produce milk. The overwhelming majority of milk in the U.S. is produced on CAFOs and is pasteurized.
Cows are supposed to eat and digest grass, but in CAFOs they are fed genetically-engineered grains and soy products, and often deprived of sunlight. They also are exposed to each other’s excrement, in which they stand until workers clean the area. Even though the cows go through a sanitizing wash before they’re milked, the animals are given antibiotics to ward off and counter infections, and the milk is pasteurized to kill the bacteria.
However, dead bacterial proteins remain in the milk and are not removed. As your body digests these foreign proteins, it may produce an allergic response. On the other hand, cows raised on grass produce high-quality milk and whey protein, reducing the allergic effect some people experience.
Pasteurization destroys many of the valuable nutrients found in cow’s milk, some of which are important for digestion of the product, resulting in digestive issues you may experience when drinking milk or eating cheese. For more information about using and purchasing raw milk, see my past article, “Why is Raw Milk Illegal?“
Yogurt Offers More Benefits
Results from both the Australian and Finnish studies confirmed that fermented dairy products may protect you against heart disease. These products include kefir and yogurt where live bacteria are present. One study scientist, Jyrki Virtanen, adjunct professor of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Eastern Finland, told Newsweek:16
“Our findings and those from other studies suggest that fermented dairy products may have health benefits compared to non-fermented dairy. Therefore, it might be a good idea to use more fermented dairy such as yogurt, kefir, quark and sour milk. Some of the beneficial effects of fermented dairy products may relate to their impact on the gut microbiota.”
Most yogurt sold in the U.S. is sugar-sweetened and fruit-flavored, but in other countries yogurt is paired with lemon, garlic, cumin and olive oil. It may be used as a base for sauces and vegetables, and it’s becoming more popular to find Greek yogurt dips and salad dressings.
If you’re eating yogurt to optimize your gut flora, then you may want to steer clear of commercial yogurt brands that have more in common with candy than health food. Seek out organic yogurt made from 100% grass fed or pastured whole milk, rather than low-fat or skim. You could also start making yogurt at home.
As I’ve written before, yogurt is a top food for fighting inflammation, much of which may occur as yogurt affects gut bacteria. By eating homemade yogurt, you’re able to control the ingredients, boost its health properties and flavor the product to your liking.
It’s easy to add fresh berries or a squirt of your favorite juice once the product is ready to eat. Compared to pasteurized varieties, yogurt made with raw milk is thicker, creamier and nutritionally superior.