by Marion Nestle
Nov 7 2010

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Could The USDA Get Any Cheesier?

Eating Liberally’s kat (a.k.a. Kerry Trueman) asks one of her inimitable “Ask Marion” questions, this one about Michael Moss’s blockbuster story in today’s New York Times about dairy lobbying.


KT: Sunday’s New York Times has a disturbing exposé by Michael Moss about the USDA’s efforts to aid the dairy industry by encouraging excessive cheese consumption. Can the USDA ever reconcile its two mandates? On the one hand, the USDA has the task of tackling the obesity epidemic by encouraging healthier eating habits. Yet it must also promote the interests of U.S. agriculture. As Moss documents so well, these two missions are in total conflict.

Dr. Nestle: And so they are, have been, and will be until public outrage causes some changes in Washington. In two of my books, Food Politics and What to Eat, I wrote about how dairy lobbying groups, aided and abetted by the
USDA, convinced nutritionists that dairy foods were equivalent to essential nutrients and the only reliable source of dietary calcium, when they are really just another food group and one high in saturated fat, at that.

The USDA is still at it. As Michael Moss notes:

The department acknowledged that cheese is high in saturated fat, but said that lower milk consumption had made cheese an important source of calcium. ‘When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet,’ the department said.

So let’s talk about “moderation,” a word that I find hard to use without irony. The pizza illustrated in Michael Moss’s article is described as a “thin-crust medium pie.” The diameter is not given, but one-fourth of the pie contains 430 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat (20 is the daily recommended upper limit), and 990 mg sodium (the upper limit is 2,300).

Who eats one-quarter of a pizza? Not anyone I know. So double all this if you share it with a friend. If you eat the whole thing–and why do I think that plenty of Domino Pizza customers do?–you are consuming more than 1700 calories, nearly 4,000 mg sodium (that’s 10 grams of salt, by the way), and 48 grams of saturated fat. This is enough to make any nutritionist run screaming from the room.

So why is USDA in bed with dairy lobbying groups? That’s its job. From its beginnings in the 1860s, USDA’s role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales, with the full support of what was then a largely agricultural Congress. Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the “lead federal agency” role in providing dietary advice to the public.

Much of Food Politics is devoted to describing the USDA’s severe conflict of interest in developing dietary advice to “eat less” of basic agricultural commodities. As Times reporter Marian Burros put it in one of her articles about the fights over the 1992 Pyramid, which visually suggested eating less meat and dairy, “the foxes are
guarding the henhouse.”

This is what Mrs. Obama is up against in her efforts to reduce childhood obesity and bring healthier foods into America’s inner cities.

How to change this system? One possibility might be to move dietary guidance into a more independent federal agency, NIH or CDC for example. Another might be to recognize the ways in which corporate lobbyists corrupt our food system and do something about election campaign laws.

A pipe dream? Maybe, but I never thought I’d live to see the editors of the New York Times consider an article about USDA checkoff programs to be front-page news, and in the right-hand column yet, marking it as the most important news story of the day.

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  • I too was very pleased to see this issue make top news in the New York Times. It’s simply ridiculously how Americans continue to be brainwashed by the Dairy Industry, backed by the U.S. government, that milk is a necessary part of our diet! Cows milk is meant for baby calves, not humans. We do not need to consume it, nor should we consume it on a regular basis. And to even consider promoting dairy to the point where pizza companies are loading their already cheesy, greasy pizza with more cheese…that’s just absurd.

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  • Daniel K Ithaca, NY

    The industry-promoting advice that people need to consume a high saturated fat, high sodium food in order for them to get more calcium seems to be really irresponsible advice, perhaps they could have asked the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for a list of foods that contain calcium that aren’t also chock full of calories and cardio-vascular disease promoting saturated fat like cheese is.
    So if the Dietary Guidelines also cut back the amount of servings of meat & animal based protein that it recommends, wouldn’t the calcium needs of the target population also be reduced?
    I’m happy to see the New York Times is allowing the issue of nutrition and public health to be an important part of their news.

  • Two other policy options to consider: (a) have USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion or CDC review all checkoff messages (I have a hunch they might continue to approve promotion of drinking milk, for example, but might rein in a lot of the worst high-fat cheese and meat promotion through fast food restaurants), or (b) let the federal government get out of the business of collecting mandatory assessments for these programs, instead letting them function as private sector trade associations, so they can promote their own message without undermining federal dietary guidance.

  • Daniel K Ithaca, NY

    (b) let the federal government get out of the business of collecting mandatory assessments for these programs, instead letting them function as private sector trade associations

    and let the “free market decide”. If their products are not being consumed as they once were, perhaps we don’t need (so many) factory farms. Do the small scale farmers really benefit from the checkoff program or is it an unnecessary burden that mostly benefits industrial agriculture & the dairy processors?

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  • Pete

    And what percentage of human breast milk is saturated fat? this war on fat is ridiculous. I don’t see how pointing out corruption leads to “look they are promoting something high is sat fat”. How about they are just caught in a conflict of interests. People eat way more grain, sugar and refined carbs than dairy products. If sat fat really is in opposition to anti-obesity then how can I (and many others) consume so much of it and be in fantastic shape?… alright I’ll stop because I know this opinion is not shared by most here.

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  • Sheila

    I think USDA could promote dairy foods and maintain their mandated health promotions by promoting skim milk based products. My fat-free yogurt is delicious, provides a nice amount of protein and calcium, but none of the fat or sodium issues that concern us with promotion of commercial pizza brands. We use skim milk cheese at our house when we want a bit of cheese, and it works. We use skim milk on our cereal, in our cooking, and it works. The promotional messages need to change to include the education of how to use skim milk products in delicious, healthy ways.

  • Daniel K. Ithaca, NY

    @Pete “alright I’ll stop because I know this opinion is not shared by most here.” It is good to bring in different perspective, the study of nutrition is a complex issue. I’m happy to hear that people are discussing issues like these.

    Diets that are high in saturated fat promote cardio-vascular disease, which is a separate issue from the caloric intake/expenditure. Someone would increase the likelihood of developing both were they to frequently follow this cheesy USDA promotion.
    Men who were serving in the US Army in Korea and Vietnam were also in top shape…at least they appeared that way. Here’s an interesting article:
    “Autopsy data from the conflicts in Korea 2 and Vietnam 3 the Bogalusa study,4 and the PDAY 5 study all testify to the ubiquitous nature of the disease in young Americans. ” (#s are citations)

  • LiTi

    Flavored milk is another evil heavily promoted. School kids are lead to believe that 1. You cannot live without drinking milk and 2. There are three kinds – white, chocolate and strawberry.

  • Pete

    Daniel – I went to SUNY Cortland, but I won’t hold it against you 😉

    “Diets that are high in saturated fat promote cardio-vascular disease” – has this been studied in the absence of carbohydrates? Specifically grains and high amounts of fructose? I have not seen any evidence as of yet that truly correlates dietary saturated fat intake with cardiovascular disease. I am sure you have seen this before, but I just in case… I think this about sums it up.

  • michele

    I am also saddened by the rote repetition of the “evils” of saturated fat. Excess carb consumption, not saturated or indeed any kind of fat, is the root of the nutrition problem and resultant disease epidemic. Gary Taubes had it right.

  • @Pete – “And what percentage of human breast milk is saturated fat? ”

    Human breast milk is consumed at a time of life when we’re meant to grow at rapid rates. The need for that level of fat consumption does not continue into adulthood.

    I do agree with you that fat is being demonized, perhaps wrongfully so. Nutrition is such a complicated subject, with new studies, offering differing viewpoints, coming out every day.

  • Suzanne

    @Pete –

    Can you please email me at regarding low carb/high fat conversation? I would like to continue the discussion.

    I’m @suzanne_garrett on Twitter if you prefer.


  • Amy

    Pete – I think the fear of whole grains promoted by primal/paleo type dieters is pretty misguided. I’m sure we can all agree that large amounts of refined carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup have contributed to our current obesity epidemic though. Some saturated fat is probably fine, especially when compared with transfats but other studies have shown that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat from fish and plant based foods is highly beneficial in terms of heart health.

    The current obesity epidemic is not caused by any nutrient in particular over another. If you read the studies from the USDA we are consuming an extra 500-700 calories a day from what we used to eat back in the 1970’s. Sugar is up, grains are up, but cheese and meat are also up as well as oil consumption. We are just eating too much in general, portion sizes are huge at restaurants, eating too many processed foods, not getting enough exercise, and not getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Pete

    @ Amy – I do not believe this is misguided at all. I do however believe that it is misguiding to suggest vegetable oils are healthy. Unlike fish oil which contains high amounts of monounsaturated fats full of Omega 3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated vegetable oils contain high amounts of Omega 6 fatty acid. See here what the University of Maryland has to say on Omega 6:

    “The typical American diet tends to contain 14 – 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids.” – this can be DIRECTLY attributed to the demonetization of saturated fat. In fact, had it not been for CSPI going after McDonald’s because they used beef tallow (saturated fat) to fry their fries in the first place, they would have never made the switch to partially hydrogenated soy bean oil – which few will argue is markedly unhealthier than animal fat. Omega 6 when out of balance with Omega 3 causes inflammation in the body. (Coincidentally I just went to the doctor on Monday and, his words – not mine, “Nearly every disease or ailment can be traced back to inflammation in the body”.)

    It is well understood that the food industry is a for profit business. When the US government makes a recontamination on eating habits, the industry will react in a way that makes the most fiscal sense. When the government recommended limiting dietary fat intake it paved the way for massive substitution with refined sugar, salt and carbohydrates.

    Dietary fat plays a large role in satiety. Fat and protein (and fiber) make us feel full, whereas carbohydrates raise blood sugar which latter falls causing hunger – all while adding to increased insulin resistance of course. Salt makes you thirstier, sugar covers up a salty taste… and round and round we go.

    I can’t say for certain that people would be eating less if this recommendation had not been made, but I can say with relative certainty (based on human physiology) that people would eat less overall (food by weight) if they ate less carbs, no sugar and ate more fat and protein.

    The monkey wrench in the whole thing is the QUALITY of meat in America. I would first be a vegetarian than eat anti-biotic laden industro-meat. For the time being, wild caught fish is about as good as it gets.

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  • Jon

    It would’ve been better without Neal Barnard saying that cheese is the ONLY reason people are getting fatter. At the same time that we’ve been told “Eat less meat. Eat more carbs.” Soft drinks definitely play a role. But soft drinks are vegan and therefore not one of Barnard’s bettes noirs.

  • Elizabeth Ball

    Full-fat dairy products do have a lot of calories that can add up quickly. I prefer them to low-fat, but I watch my portion size. Cheese is dispensed in 1 oz. servings; cream in my coffee is 1/4 T. per day.

    Gary Taubes has a lot right (low-carb definitely controls my cravings for excessive calories & junk food), but Marion Nestle has valid points as well. You kind of have to synthesize the inputs of both to get to an answer.

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  • Nikola Simic

    I still don’t get how one government can regulate what people should eat. People must be so dumb to even bother reading those stupid guidelines.

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