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Low-fat yogurt with aronia berries. Photo: Michael P. King

Yogurt already has a lot going for it. A fermented dairy food, it is rich in calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Its mildly sour taste is a delight to many, and it can be dressed up with healthy, flavorful toppings such as nuts and fruit. And now there may be another good reason to eat it.

Various studies show that certain dairy products may help dampen chronic inflammation, which is a prolonged, overactive immune response that can be damaging to the body. Chronic inflammation is associated with obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases. This promising research was the impetus behind a new investigation, directed by assistant professor of food science Brad Bolling BS’02 PhD’07 into one dairy product’s anti-inflammatory properties.

“We wanted to look at the mechanism more closely and look specifically at yogurt,” says Bolling, whose research focuses on the role of food in preventing chronic disease.

Evidence suggests that yogurt may help reduce inflammation by improving the integrity of the intestinal lining, thus preventing endotoxins — pro-inflammatory molecules produced by gut microbes — from crossing into the bloodstream. Bolling’s yogurt study set out to explore this hypothesis. It involved 120 premenopausal women, half obese and half non-obese. Some were assigned to eat 12 ounces of low-fat yogurt every day for nine weeks; a control group ate non-dairy pudding for nine weeks.

At various points during the study, Bolling and his team took fasting blood samples from participants and evaluated an assortment of biomarkers that scientists use to measure endotoxin exposure and inflammation, such as elevated blood plasma levels of specific proteins and cytokines. The results were very promising: while some of the biomarkers remained steady over time, the yogurt eaters experienced significant improvements in certain key markers.

“The results indicate that ongoing consumption of yogurt may be having a general anti-inflammatory effect,” Bolling says.

Participants in the study were also involved in a high-calorie meal challenge at the beginning and end of their nine-week dietary intervention. The challenge, meant to rev up an individual’s metabolism, started with ea serving of either yogurt or non-dairy pudding followed by a large high-fat, high-carb breakfast meal.

“It was two sausage muffins and two hash browns, for a total of 900 calories,” Bolling explains. “But everybody managed it. They’d been fasting, and they were pretty hungry.”

For both challenges, blood work showed that the yogurt “appetizer” helped improve some key biomarkers of endotoxin exposure and inflammation as participants digested the meal over the ensuing hours. It also helped improve glucose metabolism in both obese and non-obese participants.

“Eating eight ounces of low-fat yogurt before a meal is a feasible strategy to improve post-meal metabolism and thus may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases,” says Ruisong Pei, a UW–Madison food science postdoctoral researcher involved in the studies.

The findings contribute new evidence to the ongoing scientific debate about whether dairy reduces or promotes inflammation. “There have been some mixed results over the years, but a recent review shows that things are pointing more toward anti-inflammatory, particularly fermented dairy,” Bolling says.

Bolling’s study doesn’t identify which compound or compounds in yogurt are responsible for the health-promoting effect — or how they act in the body. Solving that piece of the puzzle will require more research, Bolling notes.

“The goal is to identify the components and then get human evidence to support their mechanism of action in the body. That’s the direction we are going,” he says. “Ultimately, we would like to see these components optimized in foods, particularly for medical situations where it’s important to inhibit inflammation through the diet. We think this is a promising approach.”

This study was funded by the National Dairy Council, a nonprofit organization supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national dairy checkoff program. The findings were published in the British Journal of Nutrition and the Journal of Nutrition.