Big Cheese vs. Real Cheese



As shocking as the news is that the United States Department of Agriculture facilitated a cheese bailout with a $12 million marketing campaign to help sell Domino’s Pizza, I believe there is much more to the New York Times story as it affects average Americans and their ever-expanding waist lines.

The story makes a strong case for the correlation between saturated fat consumption and obesity. Michael Moss nails the issue of the USDA’s two-sided policy: promoting cheese consumption in the form of Domino’s Pizza, while simultaneously working to fight obesity by discouraging some of these very same foods.

But as I see it, cheese in itself is not the problem—the issues are deeper and more complex than that. Conventional wisdom says that saturated fat is bad and at the root of the American obesity and diabetes epidemics. The Times article says, “[O]ne slice contains as much as two-thirds of the day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease.” But let’s look a little deeper at this claim.

Animal products, the primary sources of saturated fats, are foods that human beings have eaten since our beginnings. In fact, often times these were the only foods around in the form of wild game or fish and seafood. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on these animals as well as foraged vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and other plant materials.

These foods were unadulterated and in their full-fat form.

More recently, Americans ate animal products in their full-fat and whole form up until the turn of the century. In the 1950s the lipid hypothesis was developed, which claimed that saturated fats were the cause of heart disease. This prompted government and medical establishments to promote low-fat alternatives to traditional fats—like using margarine instead of butter, or soybean oil instead of lard.

Well-meaning scientists in the 1950s were trying to determine what could account for the steep rise in heart disease, which at the turn of the century, accounted for less than 10 percent of all deaths but by 1950 rose to 30 percent. Heart disease is now the leading cause of death in the U.S. and claims more than 600,000 lives every year.

But if saturated fats were the cause of heart disease, wouldn’t the rates be steadily declining as Americans obediently switched to low-fat and fat free products? What accounts for this disconnect? While natural animal fats were disappearing from the American diet, highly processed and refined foods were replacing them. The use of margarine quadrupled, the use of vegetable oils tripled, and egg consumption declined by half between 1900 and 1950. And after World War II, hydrogenated oils or trans-fats became commonplace.

There is a body of research now that suggests the lipid hypothesis is faulty and that the addition of processed oils, refined flour, sugar, and chemical additives to the food supply is really what accounts for obesity and its related risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a host of other health problems. A study completed this year and reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or coronary vascular disease.” And in the current issue of the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, there is a report attributing the rise in obesity and diabetes to the “ultra-processing” of foods rather than the food items themselves. The author, Professor Carlos Monteir, writes, “The most important factor now, when considering food, nutrition and public health, is not nutrients, and is not foods, so much as what is done to foodstuffs and the nutrients originally contained in them, before they are purchased and consumed. That is to say, the big issue is food processing—or, to be more precise, the nature, extent and purpose of processing, and what happens to food and to us as a result of processing.”

Prior to the 1900s, humans were not eating much of what is commonly eaten now simply because it didn’t exist. Human beings have never eaten the combination of refined carbohydrates, refined sugars, trans-fats, additives, chemicals, antibiotics or artificial bovine growth hormones that most Americans are eating today. And as for that Domino’s Pizza—it contains all of the above.

According to the Domino’s website, there are about 60 ingredients in a deep dish pepperoni and cheese pizza, including refined wheat flour, poor quality oils, trans-fats, sugar, preservatives, artificial flavors and a myriad of chemical additives. In addition to the listed ingredients, add the antibiotics and bovine growth hormones that are regularly administered to dairy cattle and end up in the cheese on your pizza. Artificial bovine growth hormones are known endocrine disruptors (which I wrote about two weeks ago on Civil Eats) and are being studied now for their role in contributing to obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. Mysterious ingredients like “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor” as well as “modified food starch” “butter flavor” and “carrageenan” are often sources of MSG—another known endocrine disruptor. One preservative listed, BHT, is a petrochemically derived substance with a wide range of toxic effects and is a suspected carcinogen.

To be sure, eating too much cheese (or too much of anything for that matter) will amount to weight gain, but this is only part of a larger, more troubling problem as Americans continue to eat large quantities of unnatural, processed ingredients, endocrine disrupting chemicals, and hormones. There are no studies to date that evaluate this combination of ingredients and what they do to our bodies when ingested on a daily basis. But there are statistics—and given that two-thirds of the U.S. population is obese or overweight, and that the leading causes of death are all correlated to poor diet—it’s not too hard to connect the dots. Unfortunately for the American people, the U.S. government is working in the interest of the dairy industry and corporations like Domino’s Pizza and sending a clear message that their welfare is far more important than the health of its citizens.

This article is part of a regular column by holistic nutrition expert Kristin Wartman, in which she examines food, nutrition, and the way the industrial food industry affects our food system and our health.

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  1. Friday, November 12th, 2010
    Bravo! You have this almost right. The fat hypothesis is, in fact wrong. What the little existing real science shows is a direct link between sugar and carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates) to the various diseases of modern civilization you are referring to: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease. Where obesity is concerned, it is really the unique relations between carbohydrates and insulin, the fat storage hormone, that the problem resides. Fat, whether saturated or not, whether refined or not, or whether from corn, soybeans, olive or sunflower seeds, really has very little to do with it.
  2. Richard
    Friday, November 12th, 2010
    It's about time someone on this blog figured out that animal fats (and cholesterol) are an important and healthy part of the human diet and have nothing to do with obesity, diabetes or coronary heart disease. Wheat, vegetable oils, fructose and sugar are the problems, not fat and cholesterol, along with system of subsidies that make "cheap" food possible. Ironically, the cheese on the pizza is probably the least dangerous ingredient.
  3. Friday, November 12th, 2010
    Thanks for this great info. I am dismayed that cheese is getting a bad rap when, in reality, it's excess that is the issue. I'll take a normal portion of well made, flavorful full fat cheese and feel far more satisfied than I would with lowfat or highly processed alternatives. Keep up the drumbeat!
  4. Carol
    Friday, November 12th, 2010
    Great article, Kristin. Your work with us on the damaging ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and enriched flour totally changed our food purchase behavior. We also love your recipes! Thank you for your passion and creativity.
  5. Saturday, November 13th, 2010
    Great article Kristin.
  6. Monday, November 15th, 2010
    I found your blog when I was looking for a different sort of information but I was very happy and glad to read through your blog. The information available here is great.
  7. Lisa
    Monday, November 15th, 2010
    Have we really lowered our saturated fat intake as obesity has risen? I seriously doubt it. While I don't think cheese is the big issue, I don't think you see the big picture. There is valid research to show over eating any animal based products increases the risk of obesity, heart disease and other ailments. Using what early humans ate in the paleolithic area is irrelevant and inaccurate to human consumption needs today.