Biomarkers of dairy fat intake, incident cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality: A cohort study, systematic review, and meta-analysis

PLoS Med. 2021 Sep 21;18(9):e1003763. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003763. eCollection 2021 Sep.


Background: We aimed to investigate the association of serum pentadecanoic acid (15:0), a biomarker of dairy fat intake, with incident cardiovascular disease (CVD) and all-cause mortality in a Swedish cohort study. We also systematically reviewed studies of the association of dairy fat biomarkers (circulating or adipose tissue levels of 15:0, heptadecanoic acid [17:0], and trans-palmitoleic acid [t16:1n-7]) with CVD outcomes or all-cause mortality.

Methods and findings: We measured 15:0 in serum cholesterol esters at baseline in 4,150 Swedish adults (51% female, median age 60.5 years). During a median follow-up of 16.6 years, 578 incident CVD events and 676 deaths were identified using Swedish registers. In multivariable-adjusted models, higher 15:0 was associated with lower incident CVD risk in a linear dose-response manner (hazard ratio 0.75 per interquintile range; 95% confidence interval 0.61, 0.93, P = 0.009) and nonlinearly with all-cause mortality (P for nonlinearity = 0.03), with a nadir of mortality risk around median 15:0. In meta-analyses including our Swedish cohort and 17 cohort, case-cohort, or nested case-control studies, higher 15:0 and 17:0 but not t16:1n-7 were inversely associated with total CVD, with the relative risk of highest versus lowest tertile being 0.88 (0.78, 0.99), 0.86 (0.79, 0.93), and 1.01 (0.91, 1.12), respectively. Dairy fat biomarkers were not associated with all-cause mortality in meta-analyses, although there were ≤3 studies for each biomarker. Study limitations include the inability of the biomarkers to distinguish different types of dairy foods and that most studies in the meta-analyses (including our novel cohort study) only assessed biomarkers at baseline, which may increase the risk of misclassification of exposure levels.

Conclusions: In a meta-analysis of 18 observational studies including our new cohort study, higher levels of 15:0 and 17:0 were associated with lower CVD risk. Our findings support the need for clinical and experimental studies to elucidate the causality of these relationships and relevant biological mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / blood
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / mortality
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / prevention & control
  • Cause of Death
  • Dairy Products* / adverse effects
  • Dietary Fats / administration & dosage*
  • Dietary Fats / adverse effects
  • Fatty Acids / blood*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Observational Studies as Topic
  • Prevalence
  • Protective Factors
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Sweden / epidemiology
  • Time Factors


  • 14-pentadecenoic acid
  • Biomarkers
  • Dietary Fats
  • Fatty Acids
  • margaric acid