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Why Cheese Might Be the Answer to the French Paradox


As we all know (or could have guessed), France consumes more cheese than any other country in the world. So, it follows that their fatty diets put them at risk for coronary heart disease (CHD), right? Wrong.

Enter the “French paradox,” an observation that despite their high fat and high cholesterol diets, French people have relatively low instances of CHD. We have long been warned against the dangers of saturated fats and the importance of eating them in limited amounts. So why is it that the French don’t limit their fat intake but still have lower instances of CHD?

There are several theories on the subject. Red wine consumption offers one explanation, as it can boost high-density lipoprotein (what we think of as “good” cholesterol) and protect against artery damage. Resveratrol, which is found in red wine, can reduce low-density lipoprotein (“bad” cholesterol) and reduce the risk of blood clots. But wine can’t explain it all. There is also the fact that the French live a generally healthy lifestyle, eating smaller portions, taking their time over meals, and getting plenty of fruits and vegetables. Do these two theories really cover it all? The debate continues to rage on and a new contender has emerged: blue cheese.

Yes, the consumption of cheese that is supposed to cause heart disease could actually be helping to stave it off. Ivan M. Petyaev and Yuriy K. Bashmakov, researchers for Lycotec Ltd. in the UK, hypothesize that the consumption of cheese—ldquo;especially of molded varieties”—could have specific health benefits. It’s important to note this does not concern all cheese. Petyeav and Bashmakov specifically reference Roquefort, Camembert, and Gorgonzola. Why blue cheese in particular? According to their report:

The biochemistry of the ripening of these [blue] cheeses is far more complex than that of bacterial-ripened varieties such as Cheddar or Gouda and is characterized by more intense proteolysis. As a result, the core of ripened molded cheeses contains a unique variety of substances of mammalian, bacterial, and fungal origin that are not present in other cheeses.

These complex cheeses contain anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that could lead to less cardiovascular disease. In addition, the properties of the cheese could lead to a healthier gut and even slow signs of arthritis.

Of course, it would be impractical to sit around all day drinking red wine and eating stinky cheeses, but that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge occasionally. For some help finding good stinky cheese, check out this guide from Serious Eats and these suggested stinky cheese wine pairings by cheesemonger Jeffrey DeMaio.

Photo credit: Trudy S via Flickr

Gabrielle Roman

Gabrielle Roman is earning her Master's in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She is originally from Kansas City and misses the BBQ but the Thai food is good consolation. Her favorite hobby is cuddling with her puppy.