Could cheese help curb high blood pressure?

Researchers are focusing on a cheese peptide that might benefit the heart.

Than Tibbetts

In the basement of the Food Science and Nutrition building in St. Paul sit hundreds of blocks of cheese.

Stacked on shelves in a refrigerator-temperature room, the bricks, varying in color from bright orange-yellow to a soft, milky white, the blocks literally must “chill out,” sometimes for years, as they age to the proper flavor and texture.

Cheese-making has been practiced for millennia, though only relatively recently have scientists taken a hard look at what makes cheddar, well, cheddar.

It was during this research, professor Lloyd Metzger said, that researchers began studying peptides within the cheese. Metzger said it became apparent that peptides in cheese could lower blood pressure.

Peptides, chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, play a major role in determining many characteristics of cheese.

The peptides in cheese act on an enzyme in the human body known as the angiotension-converting enzyme, or ACE, which is known to cause higher blood pressure.

Cheese, along with other dairy products, hasn’t always been heaped with high praise, but Metzger hopes his research will help cheese become a more healthful option on the dinner table.

“We know the foods you eat have an impact on your health,” he said. “At the very least (we hope) it will not have a negative effect on blood pressure.”

Research assistant Melissa Nonnemacher, who is working toward a Ph.D., said controlling high blood pressure is significant in preventing heart disease.

According to the American Heart Association, high blood pressure is the “No. 1 modifiable risk factor for stroke,” and a major factor in serious conditions, including heart attacks, heart failure, kidney failure and blindness.

And with approximately 750 million pounds of cheese produced in the United States in August – a clip that would provide enough cheese for every person in the country to eat 30 pounds of it each year – Metzger’s research could affect millions.

For now, Metzger is waiting to test his cheese on rats that are genetically predisposed to have high blood pressure. Metzger’s cheese will be made into rat chow and fed to hypertensive rats.

Veterinary assistant professor John Collister said he will implant tiny devices into the rats, which will radio blood pressure information back to the researchers.

If the cheese products have blood pressure-lowering properties in rats, Collister said, he would probably look into human trials with the cheese.

Mary Higgins, dairy ingredient marketing manager for the Midwest Dairy Association, which is funding Metzger’s research, said the group is looking at the health aspects of dairy products so consumers can continue to have a “great dairy experience.”

“Hopefully there will be some additional research in the future to prove it out from a human perspective,” she said.

Metzger said dairy research benefits both parties because sales of dairy products result in more research funds, which, in turn, help to sell more products.

And, Higgins said, it leads to tangible benefits for everyday dairy consumers.

“If people can have better health by consuming a product, it’s all the better,” she said.