The Destructive Cheesing of America

cheese consumption

Story at-a-glance -

  • Trading saturated fats for added sugars and trans fats was one of the worst dietary recommendations, as it’s a recipe for chronic diseases; cheese is a healthy, saturated fat choice, but only when the source of the dairy is of high-quality
  • With a glut on the market of cow’s milk, government-sponsored Dairy Management Inc. is working hand in hand with fast food chains to increase cheese consumption
  • Raw milk and cheese from raw milk is a healthy option as the milk retains necessary enzymes for digestion and does not contain added pus, blood, hormones and toxic chemicals; be careful to buy organic grass fed milk produced specifically for raw consumption

By Dr. Mercola

Today we know that trading saturated fats for added sugars and trans fats in our diet was one of the worst lifestyle alterations, as it's a recipe for obesity, heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.1,2 Research demonstrates that once your daily caloric intake of sugar reaches 18 percent, you suffer a 200 percent increase in metabolic harm that promotes prediabetes and diabetes.3

To put this into perspective, the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) places the upper limit of added sugar intake at 25 percent of your daily calories,4 well above the 18 percent where you suffer metabolic consequences, and considerably higher than the amount your body nutritionally requires — which is zero.

Fortunately, the recommendation to eat a low-fat diet is slowly starting to lose ground. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recognizes that total fat intake has no bearing on the development of obesity or heart disease.5 Instead, the guidelines correctly warn the primary culprits behind these diet-based health conditions is sugar and refined grains.6

However, while saturated fat is not the villain it was once believed to be, the source of the fat needs to be taken into consideration. Cheese is a food derived from milk, which is rich in saturated fats that may or may not be healthy for you, depending upon how the cows were raised and fed.

America's Declining Desire for Dairy

The total amount of cow's milk consumed in America has been dropping over the past decade. In an era where people have more beverage options available to them, the thirst for milk appears to be dwindling. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported declining sales in milk for six straight years and anticipates the same will be true at the end of 2017.7

On average, Americans drank 155 pounds (70 kilograms) of milk per year as of 2016, down by one-third from consumption rates recorded in 1980. In this same time period, dairy farmers began producing more milk each year. The push began in the mid-20th century when Americans were encouraged to drink two to three glasses of milk each day to maintain optimal health and prevent osteoporosis.8

In the 1990s the "Got Milk" slogan hit the magazines as milk sales were already experiencing a decline. Combined with the debate over growth-hormone injected cows and a strong animal rights movement, the sale of milk continued in a downward spiral. This decline in sales also led to a drop in profits for farmers who were forced to pour 43 million gallons of excess milk down the drain.9

Farmers are actually dumping milk into fields, manure lagoons or using it as animal feed. There was enough milk wasted in 2016 to fill 66-Olympic sized swimming pools, and was the most recorded waste of cow's milk in 16 years. In an effort to help private farmers, the USDA offered to purchase $20 million in cheddar cheese to reduce a surplus that had reached record levels.10

In addition, the USDA provided another $11 million through the Dairy Margin Protection Program to farmers the year before. Market prices for milk fell 36 percent from a high recorded in 2014 when the supply was low. In an effort to fill the gap when prices were high, farmers expanded their operations, which led to an excess of milk production.11

Cheese Consumption on the Rise

Some of the excess cow's milk is now being used in domestic cheese production, which reached a record 5.35 million metric tons in 2016.12 This represents an increase in production of 7.6 percent from two years previously. While consumption of milk fell by 33 percent between 1980 and the present, the consumption of cheese doubled. The average American eats approximately 35 pounds of cheese each year and the sale of butter was at an all-time high of 870,000 tons in 2016.

At the same time that milk prices were high, grain prices were low, lowering the cost for farmers to feed grain to their livestock, thereby encouraging a growth in the dairy industry. Simultaneously, the value of the dollar grew and the value of the euro sank. This resulted in fewer international buyers for American milk. More European producers were then sending cheap cheese, butter and other dairy products to the U.S. as demand in Europe fell.13

One driving force behind the increase in U.S. cheese consumption are fast food restaurants working to make their menus the cheesiest. Taco Bell is one food chain using a 40-person team of people to develop menu items that tickle your taste buds. The team includes chefs, chemists, nutritionists, microbiologists and even an entomologist (the study of insects) who is responsible for food safety.14

Tacos in a cheese stuffed fried shell, Doritos Locos Taco and a breakfast taco served in a waffle shell, are just some of the concoctions of processed, fried and mass-produced "food" that chains are serving to unsuspecting customers. The development of cheesy menus in the midst of a glut in the dairy market is not an accident.

Who Is the DMI?

It may appear as if there is a combined effort to increase the amount of cheese served at restaurants as you read new menu items, including Dominos cheese stuffed crust, Taco Bell's cheese stuffed shells and Wendy's dual Double Melt sandwich.15 And, you would be correct. The organization behind growing cheese sales in restaurants is Dairy Management Inc. (DMI).

This little known, government-sponsored marketing group has the job of increasing sales of cheese, butter and all things dairy, both at home and abroad.16 In the past decade the organization has orchestrated an increase in cheese use in fast food chains with the expressed goal of increasing sales of cheese in the U.S.

DMI was created in the mid-1990s as a checkoff, funded by America's dairy farmers and dairy importers.17 The program was created by the U.S. government with the sole purpose to increase sales and demand for dairy products.

Each American farmer pays 15 cents, and importers pay 7.5 cents, for every 100 pounds of milk they sell or import. That money is used to fund programs to promote the industry, which was authorized by Congress, loosely overseen by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, but ultimately responsible to the dairy farmers they serve.

Over the years the organization has collected hundreds of millions of dollars from the compulsory checkoff fee charged to every dairy farmer.18 The original plan was direct-to-consumer advertising, but they quickly shifted to working with companies who developed products for the marketplace. DMI agents have worked with Burger King, Dominos, McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Wendy's to drive the sale of cheese.

Ironically, while the American government mistakenly urges citizens to cut out fat from their diet, they are supporting an agency whose sole mission is to drive the sale of dairy products brimming in saturated fats.19

Is It Real Cheese?

Although real cheese, made from raw, unpasteurized milk, is full of healthy saturated fats, great flavor and wholesome nutrition, most of the cheeses sold in grocery stores and used in restaurants are not real, raw cheeses. Most of the cheese products sold in America today are not even made from organic milk,20 but rather from cows raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). These large, industrial operations are designed to produce the most amount of milk in the least amount of space.

Unfortunately, not only do the animals suffer under these conditions, but so does the milk they produce. Disturbing videos depicting the horrific conditions under which these animals are born, live and die are available online and serve to inform the consumer of the actual cost of the products purchased from grocery shelves.

When cows are raised in an intensive production system, forced to live in close quarters, infections move quickly through a herd, so farmers often use antibiotics — both to prevent infections and boost the cow's growth. Steroids are added to the animals' feed to boost growth and production, and a list of vitamins and potentially toxic drugs is given to the animals for the same reason. Each of these chemicals is passed along to the consumer in the milk, or cheese.

The aim of the farmer is to get the cow to produce as much milk as possible, which a diet of natural grass will not achieve. Yet diets high in grain and cheap protein are hard to digest for an animal not designed for this type of food, causing health problems and metabolic disorders that affect their milk quality.

When the cheese you eat starts with milk produced under these circumstances, the saturated fats and nutrition you absorb are not a healthy option. CAFOs also have a detrimental impact on the community where the farm is located and the individuals working on the farm. Large quantities of manure, sick animals and poor air quality have led to a dramatic rise in neurobehavioral symptoms and respiratory conditions in the humans who live and work near CAFOs.21

Camembert Cheese Teetering on the Edge of Extinction

Camembert cheese may be one of the more famous cheeses. It originates from France, where it's made from raw, unpasteurized milk.22 In fact, the restrictions on labeling cheese "Camembert of Normandy" go beyond just using raw milk. Producers must show the cheese was made with 38 percent milk fat from cows raised in Normandy, and fed a specific diet.

Large-scale cheesemakers would like to lift these restrictions in order to mass produce a product using milk produced on industrial farms, while still labeling it "Camembert of Normandy."23 In 2008 the few cheesemakers who continue to produce Camembert in much the same way it was produced since the French Revolution, declared war on industrial manufacturers and took them to court, where they won the right to be the only producers to label the product "of Normandy."24

Only 4 million of the 360 million wheels of cheese are made under the strict guidelines of true Camembert.25 True Camembert is already impossible to find in the U.S., as imported cheeses must either be pasteurized or aged for 60 days and Camembert is neither. Even in France this delicacy is getting more difficult to find as cheap imitations made with pasteurized CAFO milk flood the market.

High-Quality Artisanal Dairy Products Are Worth the Search

High-quality artisanal dairy products may be more difficult to find, but they are well worth the search. Up to 60 percent of Americans are unable to digest milk proteins, resulting in dairy intolerance.26 Symptoms may include cystic acne, bloating and indigestion, or nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. 

Interestingly, some scientists think people who CAN digest milk are lactose persistent since it isn't normal to retain the ability to digest lactose in milk into adulthood.27

About 75 percent of the world's population loses their lactase enzymes after weaning. In the U.S. 70 percent of African-Americans, 90 percent of Asian-Americans, 53 percent of Mexican-Americans and 74 percent of Native Americans are lactose intolerant. Researchers noted that those from Northern Europe and some Mediterranean populations retain their tolerance "only because of an inherited genetic mutation."

Not All Organic Milk Is Created Equally

Organic dairy farming is also big business, bringing in $6 billion annually.28 Consumers pay a premium for organic expecting they are getting superior products. Research has repeatedly shown cows raised on pasture produce milk and meat that are higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

Organic milk from cows raised under humane conditions and eating the food they were meant to eat — grass — contains approximately 25 percent less omega-6 fats and 62 percent more omega-3 fats than conventional milk.29 However, not all products labeled "organic" are created equally. Some organic dairy farms are nothing more than a CAFO in disguise.30

The standards written to define how milk should be produced organically have large loopholes that some farms take advantage of. One of the standards is that the cows must have free access to pasture, but Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute told The Washington Post:31

"About half of the organic milk sold in the U.S. is coming from very large factory farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles. Thousands of small organic farmers across the United States depend on the USDA organic system working. Unfortunately, right now, it's not working for small farmers or for consumers."

Cornucopia Institute is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization developed to represent thousands of organic farmers across the U.S. The Washington Post visited several farms that claimed to produce organic milk products through Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, finding most of the cows spent most of their time in feedlots, not pastures. Cornucopia Institute noted that aerial photography and satellite imagery showed few if any animals in pastures at 14 organic livestock operations.32

Organic, Grass Fed Raw Milk — All the Taste Without the Indigestion

Conventional farms, by the very nature of raising animals in feedlots, are not set up to produce milk that can be safely consumed raw. "Healthy milk," by its very nature, is produced by cows who are raised in a healthy environment. In order to buy safe raw milk, it's important you ensure you're buying milk that was produced with the intention of being sold and consumed in a raw state. Unpasteurized milk from conventional dairy operations does not meet that criteria and could be extremely hazardous.

Milk produced in industrial dairies is often loaded with pus, blood, hormones and dangerous pathogens that would be dangerous to drink. This is why CAFO milk MUST be pasteurized. It simply isn't safe to drink otherwise. However, once pasteurized, you are still consuming the same pus, blood, hormones and pathogens. They've just been cooked and killed.

Raw milk may be sold in stores in 10 states in the U.S. and may be purchased from the farmer in 28 states. Real Milk, a project of the Weston Price Foundation, keeps an up-to-date list of states that allow raw milk to be sold in the store or from the farm.33

Voting with your wallet or pocketbook is the best way to send a message to the factory farm industry that there is a market for ethically raised livestock. By purchasing milk and cheese from dairy farmers who are doing things right, you are showing kindness to cows everywhere, decreasing their chances of suffering tragic and miserable lives, one gallon at a time.

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