Milk, cheese and yogurt contain many essential nutrients, including protein, calcium and magnesium. It’s increasingly recognized that these individual nutrients work together synergistically and interact in unique ways, which is the reason for their overall beneficial effects on health for people of all ages. In addition, the process of dairy fermentation, for foods like yogurt and cheese, also add to the health benefits. Together, these attributes are known as the dairy matrix.
All about the matrix
Historically, traditional nutrition research focused on one nutrient at a time. Now researchers are also interested in the complex interactions between nutrients, or the matrix1. Since people don’t eat individual foods or nutrients in isolation -- they eat foods grouped together into meals -- research that focuses on matrices is more important than focusing on any single nutrient.
Researchers define a ‘food matrix’ as “a function of both a food’s structure and its nutrient composition, and how these nutrients interact with each other.”2 In the case of dairy foods, it explains how protein, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fat work together to provide nutritional benefits, and how fermentation also plays a role (in the case of cheese and yogurt).
Benefits from the dairy matrix
Some nutrients are easier to digest when processed in a certain way. For example, when yogurt or cheese are fermented with bacteria, lactose sugar is broken down. This makes them easier to digest for people with lactose intolerance3.
Certain nutrients also work together to help reduce disease risk. For example, studies show that dairy foods reduce colon cancer risk4. Researchers say that this is due to a combination of factors, including:
Calcium and vitamin D, which protect colon cells
Fermentation, which produces short-chain fatty acids that protect the colon5.
Consider this: when nutrients are looked at in isolation, it’s common to hear claims like “dairy is high in saturated fat.” One nutrient becomes the enemy, which doesn’t account for the fact that:
Dairy is high in beneficial protein, vitamins and minerals
Some saturated fatty acids have health benefits6
The overall health benefits of a food are more complex than just looking at one nutrient; that’s why the dairy matrix is important to consider as a whole.
Despite containing some saturated fat, dairy foods have not been shown to produce the negative health effects one would suspect. In fact, the opposite is true, thanks to the sum of the dairy matrix.
Research shows benefit for dairy foods on reducing hypertension and protecting heart health7. The interaction of calcium, phosphorus, the milkfat globule membrane, and starter cultures from fermentation (the dairy matrix) can work synergistically to modify saturated fatty acid-induced increases in blood lipids8.
A meta-analysis on dairy and heart health showed that eating dairy foods had favorable or neutral associations with cardiovascular health9.
A 2022 study showed that enjoying up to 200 grams of dairy foods daily had no detrimental effect on heart health, and fermented cheese and yogurt were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events10
Studies also highlight the special role of dairy foods on bone health, which can also be attributed to the dairy matrix. In addition to calcium, there are other nutrients in dairy foods that work synergistically to build strong bones. These include:
The bottom line? When it comes to nutrition, we have to consider the bigger picture. Foods aren’t eaten in isolation. And certainly, the health effects of dairy foods extend beyond their individual parts. Researchers will continue to explore the dairy matrix to see how the unique nutrient composition of dairy foods can provide a variety of significant health benefits.