Cheese lovers likely jumped for joy after reading the New York Times’ Nov. 6 article about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s campaign to encourage Americans to eat more cheddar, gouda and other cheese. Run by the USDA’s Dairy Management group, the campaign spurred increased cheese consumption by convincing Domino’s Pizza, Taco Bell and other fast food restaurants to add more cheese to their menu items. The result? The average American consumes about 33 pounds of cheese a year—nearly triple the amount eaten in 1970, the New York Times reported.
Of course, as the newspaper also reported, all of this comes at the same time as the ballooning obesity epidemic in the United States and is being championed (and funded) by the government group that is supposed to serve as the country’s nutrition police.
$140 million for cheese; $6.5 million for nutrition
The USDA’s Dairy Management group defines its mission as increasing dairy consumption by “offering the products consumers want, where and when they want them.” Although it may seem strange, the U.S. government has long been in the cheese promotion and protection business, and today it buys up the market’s excess cheese to use for food assistance programs.
With a budget approaching nearly $140 million, the USDA's Dairy Management group appears to be taking its cheese business very seriously. One has to wonder, however, how seriously the USDA takes its job of promoting and enabling healthier eating in a country that could see its national obesity rate top 40 percent in the next 40 years. According to the times, the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion—the government group that promotes healthy eating—has a total budget of only $6.5 million. That's not a lot of money when one considers the task. In addition, the cheesy products being trumpeted by the Dairy Management group—such as Taco Bell’s steak quesadilla—pack huge amounts of saturated fat and sodium, thus flying in the face of the USDA's own tips for healthy eating.
Of course, as the USDA is quick to point out, cheese can be a healthy component to a healthy diet—when eaten in moderation. The problem is, moderation is difficult to achieve when one orders a Domino’s Pizza and—thanks to product development and marketing support of the USDA—that pizza now comes with twice the cheese. Sure, the pizza might taste better to an individual who has been trained to crave fat- and sodium-laden food (thus driving up Domino’s Pizza sales), but in the end, isn’t it adding to the enormous health crisis that threatens to bankrupt individuals, companies and the government alike?
Cheese isn't inherently bad
The truth is, along with tasting mighty good, cheese does provide numerous health benefits. Cheese is rich in calcium and vitamin K2, which proving to be particularly beneficial. In fact, a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people with higher intakes of vitamin K from food were less likely to develop or die of cancer, particularly lung or prostate cancer. Other studies have shown that the vitamin K in fermented cheese can help prevent heart disease and osteoporosis. Perhaps this is one reason why the cheese-loving French are slimmer and generally healthier than Americans.
Such benefits, however, are outweighed by the health risks associated with a diet high in saturated fat and sodium. So, if you want to get the most out of your cheese, do as the French do: forgo gulping down that double cheese cheeseburger and savor a small wedge of your favorite gruyere or farmhouse cheddar with family and friends. Even if the USDA doesn’t thank you for it, your health will.