The Year The Government Made Me Eat More Cheese

Darryl Campbell observes that in 2010 the government encouraged us to eat healthier and less healthy at the same time.

Forget all of this Wikileaks diplomacy stuff for a second, and let’s focus on one of the strangest government conspiracies of the last decade: the plot to get Americans to eat more cheese.

For the last few years, Dairy Management Inc., a marketing agency funded in part by the USDA, has been engaged in cheese boosterism. Last year, they helped Domino’s reformulate its pizza to include up to 40% more cheese, which boosted the pizza chains’ sales by “double digits.” A few years before that, Dairy Management supported an ad campaign that promised a dairy-heavy diet could help people lose weight — a claim that had no real scientific value. And Dairy Management reports its success to Congress in terms of millions of pounds of cheese sold nationwide — no small number now that Americans consume over 10 billion pounds of cheese per year, five times as much as the country ate in 1970.

(Side note: Do you think this also means that some kind of Bacon Management Office is behind the rise of the Baconator, bacon vodka, and Papa Murphy’s “Bacon Bacon Bacon Pizza”?)

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It’s a strange and self-contradictory goal, since the USDA is the same organization trying to cut people’s intake of saturated fat and increase their consumption of low-fat milk, among other things. But then again, examples of food-related legislation that actually works are few and far between. Voters in Washington and legislators in New York recently defeated soda pop taxes, and the Child Nutrition Act, which authorizes more funding and healthier food for school lunch programs, appears stalled in Congress despite its passage in the Senate in August.

At the same time, we continue to fall into the convenience-based embrace of the food industry. Last year, Michael Pollan warned us that American home cooking was at low ebb: just over half of all Americans cook for themselves, as long as you take “cook” to mean any assembly of ingredients (so making a sandwich is in, microwaving soup is out). Thus appliance companies trumpeted this as the year of “speed-scratch” food, the index-finger chef, and the pizza bump (that protrusion in the back of your new toaster oven that allows you to fit a whole frozen pizza in there).

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Enter the “IKEA Effect,” which holds that the more effort you put into a task, the more pleasure you get out of it. As we put less effort into our food, each calorie satisfies us less. No wonder that we continue to get fatter as we cook less. And fatter we are: for the first time, at least half of the population of every state in America is obese or overweight, and only two states, Oregon and Alaska, saw a relative decrease in the percentage of their populations who are obese.

So where do we go if legislation isn’t working, or if it’s working towards selling more cheese at the expense of our health, and if we still fail to pay attention to what goes into our mouths and how it affects our bodies?

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Well, there might be a few glimmers of hope from the corporate world, as long as you can filter the signal from the noise. (For instance, when Taco Bell says that it’s reducing the sodium content of much of their menu by as much as a quarter, it simply means that items like the Grilled Stuft Burrito with chicken will now have slightly less, instead of slightly more, than your daily recommended amount of sodium in them.) Wal-Mart, for example, really does make an effort to find local, organic, sustainable food. The company announced last month that it would “sell $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small and medium farmers.” In fact, much of its local and organic produce even tastes better than what you can find at Whole Foods. In some places known rather condescendingly as “food deserts,” Wal-Mart is be the only grocery store around; might this mean that healthy, affordable eating has come to some of the places that need it the most?

We’ll see. I’d prefer that the government keep its hands out of my fridge, at least until it gets its promotional priorities straight (“my pantry, my choice,” for the sloganeers out there). For the time being, though, I guess it’s something of a relief that we aren’t facing historic butter shortages like they are in Israel; at least we have our government making sure we eat our dairy.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.