In recent years nutrition science has shifted focus from nutrients to researching the effect whole foods have on our health. For many foods the nutrient content does not necessarily predict its health properties.
Foods consist of lots of different nutrients and components that sit within complex physical structures. The ‘Food Matrix’ describes a food in terms of both its physical structure, its nutrient content and how these interact together.
This is especially true when it comes to dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt. Scientists and nutritionists are recognising that the effects of dairy foods go beyond the benefits of the individual nutrients they contain. The whole dairy food is greater than the sum of its parts and the unique ‘Dairy Matrix’ is responsible for its many health benefits.
The Dairy Matrix + Health Benefits
We all know calcium is important to build and maintain strong bones, however calcium from dairy foods appears more beneficial than other forms. Why is this?
As well as being the richest sources of calcium in the diet, milk, cheese and yoghurt each contain a unique matrix of other nutrients such as phosphorus and protein that work together to support healthy bones.
Studies have shown calcium from dairy foods has greater effects than equivalent calcium supplements on bone mineral density – a marker of bone strength (Bonjour et al (2011) J Am Coll Nutr. 30:438S-448). Scientists have suggested that the protein and lactose in dairy may enhance calcium balance by promoting absorption.
Read more about dairy and bone health.
What you put in your body after a workout matters. Milk and other dairy foods naturally contain a matrix of nutrients and bioactive factors which interact to help you rehydrate, refuel and repair after exercise.
When it comes to muscle, milk, yoghurt and cheese contain high-quality proteins (whey and casein) that provide all the essential amino acids needed to build and maintain muscle mass. Studies have now shown that consuming milk after resistance training promotes more muscle gain than other protein sources (Wilkinson et al (2006) Am J Clin Nutr. 85:1031-1040).
This effect cannot be explained by single nutrients in dairy. The Dairy Matrix exerts an effect on muscle health that is more than the sum of its parts.
Read more about dairy and muscle.
Dairy foods naturally contain different amounts of fat. In the past, health organisations have recommended we choose low-fat, however more recently scientists have discovered that eating milk, cheese and yoghurt, regardless of the fat content, does not increase the risk of heart disease. The Heart Foundation now recommends all types of milk, cheese and yoghurt for healthy people.
Some evidence even shows a protective relationship between consumption of dairy and heart disease. A recent study confirmed that eating 40g of cheese (two slices) is linked to a 10 percent reduction in the risk of heart disease (Chen et al (2017) Eur J Nutr. 2017;56:2565-2575).
The explanation is thought to be the interactions between components of the cheese matrix, including calcium, phosphorus, the milk fat structure, and starter cultures, which together offset the impact of saturated fat.
Read more about the health benefits of dairy.
Fermented dairy products, such as yoghurt can have a positive effect on gut health. People with diagnosed lactose intolerance seem to tolerate yoghurt better than milk. The unique dairy matrix in yoghurt results in a longer gut transit time, helping with the absorption of nutrients and reducing stomach upset. This is also a result of the live bacteria present in yoghurt. The fermentation process can alter the nutritive and bioactive properties of foods that can benefit health.
Read more about dairy and digestive health.
Eating milk, cheese and yoghurt as part of a healthy, balanced diet is not linked with weight gain or obesity (NHMRC (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: NHMRC). Several studies have also shown that including these dairy foods in a reduced calorie diet can promote healthy weight loss, while keeping lean muscle mass (Abargouei et al (2012) Int J Obes. 36(12):1485-93). This is due to dairy’s natural matrix of protein, calcium and other milk components such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), medium-chain fatty acids and bioactive peptides which help with appetite regulation, building lean body mass and reducing body fat.
Learn more about dairy’s health benefits.