Now Is the Time of Cheese

The average American eats almost three times as much cheese today as in 1970.

Yesterday the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a "report card" on U.S. eating habits, entitled "The Changing American Diet." In The New York Times, Jane Brody called our performance therein a disappointment. That depends how you feel about D-pluses, I suppose, and cheese.

(Center for Science in the Public Interest)

The report's dairy chart tells us the average U.S. consumer is, at 23 pounds per year, eating more than the occasional cheese dip. In 1970, the number was about eight pounds.

In relative terms, yogurt's rise is even more impressive, but yogurt isn't the kind of thing that defines a nation. It's also a lot of low-fat and non-fat stuff, which, as long as it's not loaded with sugar, should be of less cardiovascular consequence than cheese.

Why are we eating thrice the cheese? If you're into cheese and conspiracy, check out Michael Moss in The New York Times a while back:

Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

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. ...  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.

Consider the Taco Bell steak quesadilla, with cheddar, pepper jack, mozzarella and a creamy sauce. “The item used an average of eight times more cheese than other items on their menu,” the Agriculture Department said in a report, extolling Dairy Management’s work — without mentioning that the quesadilla has more than three-quarters of the daily recommended level of saturated fat and sodium.

Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.

That's the story that became the hook for Moss's book, released earlier this year, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Possible rejected tagline: Who are the real cheese-eating surrender monkeys?

In July, Dairy Management released a report on its next initiative: stemming our lack of interest in milk. "From 1975 to 2010, annual per capita fluid milk consumption dropped from 28.6 to 20.9 gallons. ... It’s been a painful time for the fluid milk industry." Dairy Management remains partnered with McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Domino's "to create new and innovative products using dairy to delight consumers."

Jump to comments
Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.


Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Health

Just In