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Why a Norwegian cheese could be key in keeping your bones healthy

Cheese is gouda for your bones… but only if you eat Jarlsberg! Experts find benefits come from eating two slices of the nutty Norwegian product a day

  • Eating Jarlsberg increased levels of Vitamin K2, which increases bone strength 
  • Norwegian researchers found the effect was not the same with Camembert 
  • They claim eating around two slices of the cheese could reduce osteoporosis 

Eating cheese may hold the key to keeping your bones healthy in old age, research suggests.

But the benefits don’t come from eating cheddar, mozzarella or even Camembert.

Instead, the secrets appear to stem from Jarlsberg — a mild, nutty-flavoured cheese hailing from Norway.

Academics found eating the equivalent of just two slices of it a day could be enough to ward off osteoporosis. 

The condition gradually weakens bones, making them more fragile and likely to snap in old age.

Eating Jarlsberg cheese (pictured) may hold the key to keeping your bones healthy in old age, research suggests

A number of different medicines are used to treat osteoporosis.

Bisphosphonates slow the rate that bone is broken down. This maintains bone density and reduces the risk of a broken bone.

There are a number of different bisphosphonates, including:

  • alendronic acid
  • ibandronic acid 
  • risedronic acid 
  • zoledronic acid 

They’re given as a tablet or injection. 

Osteoporosis is a disease where bone density is lost leaving patients prone to fractures. Usually, old bone tissue is broken down and replaced with new tissue. 

Osteoporosis occurs when the breaking down of bone outpaces its replacement. 

Bisphosphonates are clinically proven to reduce the risk of fractures by increasing bone mass and mineral density as well as filling pits created by overactive bone cells.

The drugs bind to the surface of bones, blocking bone removal. 

Because longer-term treatment can sometimes have side-effects, the doctor may suggest a break from treatment after three to five years. 

Sixty-six women, who were in their thirties, on average, took part in the study, which lasted for 12 weeks.

They were asked to either add a 57g/day of Jarlsberg — the equivalent of around two sandwich slices — into their usual diet, or 50g of Camembert for six weeks. 

The cheeses were compared against each other because they have a similar fat and protein content. Jarlsberg, however, is rich in vitamin K2. 

Blood samples were taken before and after the experiment, published in the British Medical Journal’s Nutrition Prevention and Health. 

Volunteers in the Camembert group were also switched to Jarlsberg after the first six weeks to see how changing which cheese they ate affected their bodies.

Levels of osteocalcin, the hormone responsible for binding calcium to bones, giving them their strength, were higher in the Jarlsberg group.

They also had significantly more vitamin K2, which experts claimed is ‘important for bone health’. 

No such effects were visible in the Camembert group. 

The group saw levels of both spike when they switched to eating Jarlsberg, however.

Surprisingly, calcium and magnesium levels — both known to be beneficial for bone health — fell for those eating Jarlsberg. 

But the academics, of the Skjetten Medical Center in Norway, argued the fall merely reflected increased uptake of the minerals among participants eating Jarlsberg.

They said ‘daily Jarlsberg cheese consumption has a positive effect on osteocalcin’ and other markers of bone formation.

The results suggest the effects are specific to Jarlsberg, researchers said.

They claimed the findings indicated the cheese could help prevent osteopenia, the stage before osteoporosis. 

But they emphasised further research is needed to confirm it. 

Researchers also did not measure changes to bone density or strength, meaning the increase in vitamin K2 may not actually cause a reduced risk of osteoporosis.

Other experts warned the study — part-funded by TINE SA, one manufacturer of Jarlsberg — should not be ‘taken as a recommendation to eat a particular type of cheese’. 

Professor Sumantra Ray, a nutritionist at the University of Cambridge who co-owns the journal, said: ‘This study shows that while calcium and vitamin D are known to be extremely important for bone health, there are other key factors at play, such as vitamin K2, which is perhaps not as well known.

‘Different methods of preparation mean there are key differences in the nutrient composition of cheese which has often been regarded as a homogenous food item in dietary research to date. This needs to be addressed in future studies. 

‘As this is a small study in young and healthy people designed to explore novel pathways linking diet and bone health, the results need to be interpreted with great caution as the study participants will not necessarily be representative of other groups. 

‘And it shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation to eat a particular type of cheese.’ 

Dr Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian at Aston University, said: ‘[The study] does not provide any evidence of actual change in bone density or strength as these would take a lot longer than six weeks to show.

‘The link to changes in vitamin K are interesting, as the Jarlsberg contained this nutrient and the control camembert did not. 

‘However, there are various other sources of this vitamin in our diet including dark green vegetables including kale. 

‘As the researchers only asked the participants to stick to their usual diet — which naturally varies — and did not try to control it, this could mean their intake of vitamin K could have varied both at baseline and through the study.’

Osteoporosis is particularly prevalent in postmenopausal women and affects 3m in Britain and 10m in the US.

Most people are not diagnosed and given bone-strengthening tablets until after they have broken a bone.

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