An international team of scientists studied the dairy fat consumption of 4,150 60-year-olds in Sweden, a country with one of the world's highest levels of dairy production and consumption. They measured the blood levels of a particular fatty acid that is mostly found in dairy foods.
The scientists then studied the group for an average of 16 years, recording how many had heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular conditions.
The researchers statistically adjusted for other known cardiovascular disease risk factors including age, income, lifestyle, dietary habits and other diseases.
They found that cardiovascular disease risk was the lowest for participants who had high levels of the dairy fatty acids. The researchers also found that higher intakes of dairy fat were not associated with an increased risk of death.
The team then combined Swedish results with other studies involving a total of almost 43,000 people from the US, Denmark and the UK, and confirmed its findings.
The common notion that full-fat dairy products should be avoided - the study turns that on its head.
"While the findings may be partly influenced by factors other than dairy fat, our study does not suggest any harm of dairy fat per se," Matti Marklund, senior researcher at the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney and joint senior author of the paper, said in a statement.
Lead author Dr Kathy Trieu from the George Institute for Global Health said fat intake and its link to heart health was more complex than previously thought, according to The Guardian.
“There’s increasing evidence to show that the type of dietary fat, or the source of dietary fat, is actually more important than the amount of fat,” she said.
Advising that consumers instead avoid products with added sugar or sodium, Trieu said, "When we’re selecting dairy foods to buy, it’s less important to select the low-fat option. A very clear example of that is: it’s better to select unflavoured yoghurts rather than a low-fat flavoured yoghurt.”
One limitation of the Swedish study was that the participants’ blood biomarkers were only measured once, at the beginning of the research, reflecting their dietary fat intake at a specific point in time.
(With inputs from CNN & The Guardian.)