DASH Diet's Low-Fat Premise Dashed
The DASH diet, short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, has been extensively researched and promoted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the ultimate heart healthy diet. As one would expect, it is low in sodium (a key constituent of table salt that has been shown to raise blood pressure), and rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and pulses. In essence, DASH is a healthy way of eating for virtually everyone, not just those concerned about their cardiovascular health.
Owing to its high-profile, officially-endorsed status, aspects of the DASH diet are constantly subjected to scientific scrutiny, and, at the end of last year, a startling new insight emerged: when sugar-rich items (including fruit juice) were replaced by full-fat dairy products, the same heart health benefits were obtained compared to the original DASH diet. In other words, it reduced the study subjects' blood pressure as well as triglyceride levels, and did not cause any significant increase in blood LDL ("bad") cholesterol. The study, commended for its "gold standard" design, was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in December 2015.
The orthodox version of the DASH diet made a point of minimizing saturated-fat intake, deeming only low-fat or fat-free dairy products suitable to be included. And now it turns out that this approach may have been a fallacy.
It would seem that the old maxim "saturated fats bad, unsaturated fats good" has been far too simplistic. While milk fat is mostly composed of the saturated kind, it actually consists of around 400 different fatty acids and its fatty acid profile is markedly different from that found in pork products, for example. Had the study been performed using greasy bacon instead of dairy, the outcome may well have been completely different, and, quite probably, not so favorable.
Dairy Fat Intake is Falling
Our nutrition data show that, on a global level, dairy (excluding butter) accounted for 22% (=2.38 g) of saturated fat contributed to the daily diet by packaged foods per capita. And the trend is a downward one; at the beginning of the review period, in 2009, that percentage was still 24%. Daily saturated fat intake through savory biscuits and crackers, by contrast, went up by 124% over the review period.
The trend away from dairy fats is even more pronounced in some highly developed markets. In the U.S., for instance, although the daily per capita intake of saturated fats through dairy products stood at 6.29 g in 2014, which is two and a half times the global average, it represented a one third drop compared to the 2009 intake of 8.16 g. So, it seems that public health advice to switch to reduced-fat dairy foods in order to control caloric and saturated fat intakes has worked a treat.
Low-Fat Label No Longer Sells
However, what is also observable from our latest health and wellness data is that many types of dairy products that are primarily positioned as low or reduced in fat are losing consumer appeal. In Western Europe, for instance, retail volume sales of reduced-fat dairy-based yogurt contracted by 6% over the 2010-2015 review period, while in Australasia reduced-fat flavored milk drinks plummeted by 61%, and in North America reduced-fat cheese volumes suffered a 21% slide.
The apparent paradox of falling dairy fat intake in the face of falling popularity of low-fat dairy products is partly due to marketing/positioning: many dairy products are indeed low in fat, but are primarily positioned as, for example, functional or organic, while their low-fat aspect is not explicitly mentioned on the packaging. Instead of low-fat, it is high-protein dairy that is pulling the crowds these days—the Greek yogurt craze is a prime example of this.
The recent DASH diet study is by no means the only piece of scientific evidence to come out in favor of dairy fats' heart healthiness, but it can certainly be classed as a key authoritative piece of research on the subject. At this point, it is foreseeable that official dietary advice will soon change, exonerating dairy fats from their presumed role in contributing to cardiovascular disease development. And, if our health and wellness data are anything to go by, consumers are probably more than ready to embrace this new direction.
For further insight contact Ewa Hudson, Global Head of Health and Wellness Research at Euromonitor International, at email@example.com.