Serious Eats

How the USDA Is Making Us Eat More Cheese

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Mmmm, cheesy. [Photograph: PhilMcGrawisnotadoctor on Flickr]

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has many responsibilities in overseeing the national agricultural industry. One of its most relevant duties is to provide accurate nutritional guidelines to Americans. The USDA formulates the food pyramid recommendations and oversees national food assistance programs. As an extension of these responsibilities, the USDA works to publicize healthier eating habits in an attempt to address our national health crises.

Or at least, that's what we think they do.

Then a story like this one in the New York Times comes along. In a not-too-shocking but pretty disheartening report, it uncovers a complicated relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), a nonprofit corporation.

DMI represents the National Dairy Council, the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and the American Dairy Association—essentially all dairy interests in the country. And as one could expect, intricate ties between the DMI and the USDA have led to some unhealthy dairy advice for Americans.

For the past few decades, the USDA has been encouraging lower saturated fat intake as a solution to the nation's obesity crisis. As cheese is a major contributor of saturated fat, lower cheese consumption is in line with the USDA's advice.

But since 1970, Americans have tripled individual cheese consumption, to nearly 33 pounds annually. What accounts for this great discrepancy between health advice and American eating habits? Well, as the DMI began to sense a shrinking demand for their fattening products, they started lobbying the USDA for assistance in selling cheese to the public. And consequently USDA representatives approved a series of relationships between the DMI and the fast food industry to cheese up menus nationwide.

Are you a fan of the cheese-filled pizza crust popularized by Pizza Hut? So is the dairy lobby, which assisted in the marketing and promotion of this new product in the early 2000s. A "Summer of Cheese" campaign that the Hut launched in 2002 led to the consumption of 102 million more pounds of cheese, as reported by the USDA to Congress. Taco Bell, Burger King, and other fast food chains have been adding layers of cheese to their menus in collaboration with the DMI. The most recent campaign is Domino's American Legends line of pizzas, which have 40% more cheese than the average Domino's pie.

All this cheesiness is detailed in undisclosed documents and hidden behind misleading nutritional information put forward by the DMI. Until 2007, the DMI touted to the public that dairy consumption could assist in weight loss—despite a complete lack of scientific evidence to support that claim. In fact, other DMI-sponsored studies had indicated the exact opposite effect of dairy on body composition. This national campaign of public "education" was government-funded, though its claims were thoroughly under-researched and misrepresented.

Essentially, this is a tale of the USDA's misplaced nutritional values. The DMI has an annual budget of somewhere in the ballpark of $135 million. In contrast, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, a federal agency that promotes healthy diets, has a budget of about $6.5 million.

It would be wonderful to think that we could trust nutritional marketing campaigns that have the USDA's stamp of approval—and indeed, most of us probably do. But it is worth reconsidering the role and merit of such advice when documents such as these highlight the murky and misleading nature of the USDA's inner workings. Perhaps we should think twice before placing an order for that "legendary" Domino's pizza, and take another look at its saturated fat content.

About the author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.

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