In light of Jack Ryan’s post below on the obesity epidemic in Mexico, I want to take a look at one of the biggest reasons why obesity is spiraling out of control here in the United States, as I suspect the same culprit is responsible.
This excerpt comes from Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. You will never walk the same way through the aisles of a grocery story after reading this.
“Take milk, for instance. Though the 1960s, sales of milk plunged as it bore the brunt of public concerns about fat, both in terms of its calories and its links to heart disease. At the same time, however, the dairy industry figured out a way to soften this blow to their business by putting the phrases “low-fat” and “2 percent” on milk in which a little of the fat had been removed. The popularity of this defatted milk grew so fast that it now outsells all other types of milk, including skim, which has no fat at all. But there is a marketing scheme at work in this: The “2 percent” labeling may lead you to believe that 98 percent of the fat is removed, but in truth the fat content of whole milk is only a tad higher, at 3 percent. Consumer groups who urge people to drink 1 percent or nonfat milk have fought unsuccessfully to have the 2 percent claim barred as deceptive.”
As obesity became more common in America in the 1970s and 1980s, Americans attempted to reduce their daily calorie intake by abandoning whole milk. The dairy industry responded by putting their deceptive “2 percent milk” on store shelves, but were left with the problem of figuring out how to get consumers to ingest the excess fat calories from the whole milk they had abandoned.
“Americans now eat as much as 33 pounds of cheese and pseudo-cheese products a year, triple the amount we consumed in the early 1970s. During that same time, beverage makers managed to only double the per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks to 50 gallons a year; in fact, in recent years they have seen a dropoff, as consumers switched to other sugary drinks. America’s intake of cheese, by contrast, continues to swell, increasing 3 pounds per person per year since 2001.
The nutritional math, when it comes to cheese, is staggering, too. Depending on the specific product, 33 pounds of cheese delivers as much as 66,000 calories, which is enough energy, on its own, to sustain an adult for a month. Those 33 pounds also have as many as 3,100 grams of saturated fat, or more than half a year’s recommended maximum intake. Cheese has become the single largest source of saturated fat in the American diet, though it is hardly the only culprit. Day in and day out, Americans on average are exceeding the recommended maximum of fat by more than 50 percent.”
Cheese is now the most powerful fat delivery system in the American diet.
“The soaring amounts of cheese we eat is no accident. It is the direct result of concerted efforts by the processed foods industry, which has labored long and hard to transform the very essence of cheese and its role in our diet. …
By 1985, in fact, much of the country was trying to avoid high-fat dairy products. Women and girls had led the way. In a long, slow – and, for the dairy industry, painful – shift that started in the 1950s, they had come to see milk as an easy and obvious sacrifice in watching their weight. A 12-ounce glass has 225 calories. Starting in the 1960s, the fat in milk was linked to heart disease as well. The same glass has 7.5 grams of saturated fat, or about half a day’s recommended maximum. (Milk is also surprisingly flush with sugar; 12 ounces has four teaspoons of sugar from the lactose in the milk. By 1988, for the first time ever, grocery stores were selling more lower-fat milk than whole milk.”
This effort by Americans to cut back on fat thrust the dairy industry into a crisis. It was suddenly drowning in surplus whole milk, as well as the fat that was being taken out of whole milk to make the skim …
When the cows started making more milk than anyone wanted to drink and the milk that people did want to drink being stripped of its fat, the industry devised an ingenious solution: It started turning it into cheese, which soaks up milk and milkfat like a sponge. …
To triple per capita consumption to 33 pounds, cheese would have to be eaten much faster, in newer, more convenient ways, and in much looser formulations …
One of the biggest free-for-alls took place in the freezer aisle. Frozen pizza used to be made with the bare minimum of cheese, as manufacturers were always looking for ways to save on ingredient costs. But the new math on cheese turned that upside down. The more cheese that was added, the better the pizzas sold, and the better they sold, the more Kraft could charge. Kraft and other companies started turning out frozen pizza that boasted two, three, and four different cheeses, including even a tangy blue, and then they tucked more cheese into the crust. By 2009, frozen pizza had reached $4 billion in annual sales, with Kraft alone pulling in $1.6 billion from DiGiorno and its other brands, and there appeared to be no end in the sight.”
Since the 1980s, Kraft and other food companies have figured out a staggering number of ways to put excess cheese (produced by genetically modified cows that pump out 6 gallons a milk a day) into the American diet.
“The Department of Agriculture, however, tracks all the basic staples that Americans eat, and it has kept a close watch on cheese. And nearly every year, the numbers in its tally set a record. Where Americans, on average, were eating 11 pounds of cheese a year in 1970, they were up to 18 pounds in 1980, 25 pounds by 1990, 30 pounds in 2000, and 33 pounds by 2007, when the rates dipped in the recession before resuming their surge.
Remarkably, the growth in cheese has mirrored the plunge in whole milk, which American consumers identified – mistakenly, it turned out – as the primary source of the saturated fat they wanted to avoid. Milk drinking went from 25 gallons per person in 1970 to the current average of 6. For the country as a whole, trading cheese for milk has been a poor bargain indeed. The net gain per person at the current rates is roughly 200 grams of saturated fat a year. Few people, of course, realized how much more cheese they were getting. But by 2010, the floodgates for cheese – as an ingredient – were opened wide.”
Kraft has even adopted Coca Cola’s terminology of soda addicts and micro targets “heavy users” of cheese with new customized lines of cheese products. You would be amazed at what goes on behind the scenes at these food corporations who compete with each other for “stomach share.”
Note: The same food corporations that are operating in the United States are selling their products in Mexico. The Southern diet was already high in fried fatty foods. I suspect the Mexican diet is unusually high in cheese.
Combine that with this push by the food industry to load their products with excess levels of salt, sugar, and fat to make them more alluring and to defeat their competition and obesity and its associated diseases is the inevitable result.