There was no evidence to suggest that swapping foods containing saturated fats – such as dairy products – for foods with unsaturated fats – like those found in margarine and sunflower oils – lowered the risk of developing heart disease, the study said.
The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the British Heart Foundation (BHF), was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and analysed 72 separate studies of more than 600,000 participants.
Total saturated fat was not associated with coronary disease risk in the 72 studies and intake of unsaturated fats did not offer any heart protection, researchers concluded.
Criticise the government’s guidelines
Dairy UK chief executive Dr Judith Bryans used the study to criticise current government guidelines on saturated fats. The guidelines failed to take into account the diversity of saturated fatty acids and their impact when combined with other nutrients, like calcium in dairy, she said.
“We’ve known for years that saturated fats consumed on their own have a significantly different impact than saturated fats present in nutrient-rich foods. Focusing on non-nutrient rich foods would be a much more useful approach and I hope that the Department of Health will take note of the results and recommendations of this analysis to review their current guidelines,” said Bryans.
Lead researcher on the study, Dr Rajiv Chowdhury, said the results could potentially develop new lines of enquiry into the effect of saturated fats on heart health and encourage “careful reappraisal of our current nutritional guidelines”.
New lines of enquiry
Current government guidelines for the healthy consumption of saturated fats are based on recommendations made by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy in 1984. They recommend men consume no more than 30g a day and women no more than 20g a day.
The Provision Trade Federation’s director general Clare Cheney said it was impractical to base health guidance on a study that was 30 years old.
“The government should be basing its health policy on updated studies like this one. Many of us in the industry have asked for a long time whether or not there was sufficient evidence between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease to justify the demonising of foods like cheese,” said Cheney.
However, Professor Jeremy Pearson, BHF associate medical director, said a large scale clinical study was needed before a conclusive judgement was made.
Results from the study were not an excuse to eat lots of cheese, pies and cakes, he said.