U.S. government promotion of cheese & obesity
- November 6, 2010
While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Sales of Cheese
By MICHAEL MOSS
When sales of Domino's Pizza were lagging, a government agency stepped in with advice: more cheese. This is the same government that, for health reasons, is advising less cheese.
Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans' diets, primarily through cheese.
Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. Cheese has become the largest source of saturated fat; an ounce of many cheeses contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk.
When Michelle Obama implored restaurateurs in September to help fight obesity, she cited the proliferation of cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese. "I want to challenge every restaurant to offer healthy menu options," she told the National Restaurant Association's annual meeting.
But in a series of confidential agreements approved by agriculture secretaries in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Dairy Management has worked with restaurants to expand their menus with cheese-laden products. . . .
Dr. Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health and a former member of the federal government's nutrition advisory committee, said: "The U.S.D.A. should not be involved in these programs that are promoting foods that we are consuming too much of already. A small amount of good-flavored cheese can be compatible with a healthy diet, but consumption in the U.S. is enormous and way beyond what is optimally healthy." . . .
Every day, the nation's cows produce an average of about 60 million gallons of raw milk, yet less than a third goes toward making milk that people drink. And the majority of that milk has fat removed to make the low-fat or nonfat milk that Americans prefer. A vast amount of leftover whole milk and extracted milk fat results.
For years, the federal government bought the industry's excess cheese and butter, an outgrowth of a Depression-era commitment to use price supports and other tools to maintain the dairy industry as a vital national resource. This stockpile, packed away in cool caves in Missouri, grew to a value of more than $4 billion by 1983, when Washington switched gears.
The government started buying only what it needed for food assistance programs. It also began paying farmers to slaughter some dairy cows. But at the time, the industry was moving toward larger, more sophisticated operations that increased productivity through artificial insemination, hormones and lighting that kept cows more active.
In 1995, the government created Dairy Management Inc., a nonprofit corporation that has defined its mission as increasing dairy consumption by "offering the products consumers want, where and when they want them."
Dairy Management, through the "Got Milk?" campaign, has been successful at slowing the decline in milk consumption, particularly focusing on schoolchildren. It has also relentlessly marketed cheese and pushed back against the Agriculture Department's suggestion that people eat only low-fat or fat-free varieties.
In a July letter to the department's nutrition committee, Dairy Management wrote that efforts to make fat-free cheese have largely foundered because fat is what makes cheese appealing. "Consumer acceptance of low-fat and fat-free cheeses has been limited," it said.
Agriculture Department data show that cheese is a major reason the average American diet contains too much saturated fat.
Research has found that the cardiovascular benefits in cutting saturated fat may depend on what replaces it. Refined starches and sugar might be just as bad or even worse, while switching to unsaturated fats has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
The department's nutrition committee issued a new standard this summer calling for saturated fat not to exceed 7 percent of total calories, about 15.6 grams in a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Yet the average intake has remained about 11 percent to 12 percent of total calories for at least 15 years.
The department issued nutritional hints in a brochure titled "Steps To A Healthier You!" It instructs pizza lovers: "Ask for whole wheat crust and half the cheese" even as Dairy Management has worked with pizza chains like Domino's to increase cheese.
Dairy Management runs the largest of 18 Agriculture Department programs that market beef, pork, potatoes and other commodities. Their budgets are largely paid by levies imposed on farmers, but Dairy Management, which reported expenditures of $136 million last year, also received $5.3 million that year from the Agriculture Department to promote dairy sales overseas.
By comparison, the department's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which promotes healthy diets, has a total budget of $6.5 million. . . .
"If you want to look at why people are fat today, it's pretty hard to identify a contributor more significant than this meteoric rise in cheese consumption," Dr. Neal D. Barnard, president of the physicians' group, said in an interview.