Vampires and goblins outside your house? Pretty tame stuff compared to what’s inside. Slice open a pack of blue cheese. That yucky stinky feet aroma happens to come from brevibacteria—exactly the same bugs that cause—you guessed it—stinky feet. Or how about the faintly vomit-like smell of parmesan? It comes from butyric acid, the same compound that lends its odor to—yes, you guessed it again. And cheese also contains skatole, a compound that imparts some of the stinky scent of human waste—that’s waste as in number two.
Yuck, you say, and rightly so.
But I’m telling you this for a reason. Halloween and the autumn months that follow are when Americans gain weight faster than at any other time of year. Halloween candy is part of it. But most of our collective weight gain comes from cheese, meat, and other fatty foods.
From cheesy pizzas to gooey dishes of macaroni and cheese, cheese is one of the most pervasive foods in American culture. In fact, the United States now produces 11.8 billion pounds of cheese every year, and Americans’ cheese consumption—and cholesterol levels—are skyrocketing as a result.
Here are five scary stats about cheese:
1) Cheese gets its smell from the same bacteria found in unwashed feet and body odor. During the process of fermentation, cheesemakers add different types of bacteria to milk to produce distinct flavors and smells. To produce Munster, Limburger, and several other cheeses, cheesemakers add brevibacteria—the exact same bacterial species that lives on your feet, while other cheese cultures include Staphylococcus epidermidis—the bacteria responsible for human body odor. On top of that, the cheese-making process produces butyric acid—the same compound produced by your stomach acid during digestion, which gives human vomit its distinct smell.
2) Cheese is one of the most heavily processed foods you’ll find. Don’t let the advertisements fool you. Dairy products are often erroneously touted as “nature’s perfect food,” but there’s nothing natural about cheese. To make cheese, cow’s milk is pasteurized, fermented by bacteria, coagulated with enzymes, separated into solids, salted, and aged. Then it might be baked onto a pizza, stuffed into a casserole, or sprinkled over tacos, before being baked and salted again.
3) Dairy crack? After downing one slice of cheesy pizza, why is it so hard to stop there? Evolutionarily, it makes sense: We’re wired to seek out food sources that are high in fat and calories and that contain salt—a compound that was once hard to come by. On top of that, cheese contains mild opiate-like compounds called casomorphins, which attach to the same brain receptors as addictive drugs. Like other opiates, when casomorphins attach to these receptors, the brain releases dopamine, leading to a sense of reward and pleasure. This system works well to ensure that growing calves want to eat, but for humans, it’s a recipe for weight gain and health problems.
4) The government actively encourages your cheese addiction. In the Dietary Guidelines, the U.S. government notes that most people consume far too much saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and encourages Americans to cut back to improve their health. But when it comes to cheese—a top source of all three overconsumed nutrients—is the government practicing what it preaches? The U.S. government accepts about $140 million per year from the cheese industry, which it then pumps into Dairy Management Inc.—a corporation overseen by the USDA whose function is to boost milk sales. DMI spends millions of taxpayer dollars working with fast-food chains to develop cheesy, high-fat menu items and promote them to the American public. Wendy’s Cheddar-Lover’s Bacon Cheeseburger and Pizza Hut’s Ultimate Cheese Pizza—which features an entire pound of cheese in a single serving—are just two examples of DMI and taxpayer money at work.
5) The average American eats 33 pounds of cheese per year. That adds up to more than 60,000 calories per person—mostly in the form of saturated fat. In fact, cheese is the No. 1 source of saturated fat in the American diet. It’s the type of “bad” fat responsible for raising cholesterol levels and increasing the risk for heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Dairy protein, which is even more concentrated in cheese, has been linked to allergies, asthma, migraines, arthritis, psoriasis, tendonitis, acne, digestion problems, and more.
Students are pouring hundreds of tons of plain milk—more than any other lunch item—into the garbage in Los Angeles schools each week. Maybe that’s because more than 88 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District students are predisposed to suffer from lactose intolerance. But instead of providing a healthful nondairy beverage that students might drink, LAUSD is compelling students to drink more milk by offering chocolate milk, which it had stopped serving in 2011.
Plain or chocolate, high-fat or low-fat, all milk can cause digestive symptoms, among other health dangers. And Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans who, according to the National Institutes of Health, are most likely to suffer from lactose intolerance comprise the majority of LAUSD’s student body: 74 percent, 8.4 percent, and 6 percent, respectively.
But LAUSD—which has designed four pilot programs to increase milk consumption—isn’t wholly responsible for pushing milk. The National School Lunch Program requires that schools offer milk with each meal—even though it’s clear that students are done with dairy.
They’re not alone. As the sales of almond milk and other plant-based milks have surged, sales of dairy milk have continued to plummet: Since the beginning of 2016, U.S. farmers have dumped 43 million gallons of milk.
Digestive issues aren’t the only reason students and other consumers are ditching dairy. Milk consumption is linked to bone fractures, heart disease, cancer, and even early death. But plant-based milks can provide all the calcium, vitamin D, and potassium without these health risks.
It’s time for the National School Lunch Program to allow LAUSD and other school districts to keep students healthy, reduce waste, and save money by moving the milk requirement off the menu.
“Why did the Obamas fail to take on corporate agriculture?” Michael Pollan asks in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a complicated issue. Here’s a simple answer: Taking on Big Food is a bigger challenge than any presidential administration can tackle alone. What hindered the White House from making certain food policy changes that could have helped Americans fight obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases caused by meat and dairy products?
Below, I’ve paraphrased some of the problems Pollan identified and my suggestions for possible solutions. He also identified a positive trend: Where the president couldn’t prevail against Big Food, the public is seeing success.
Industries including the beef slaughter and chicken processing industry are "dominated by a small number of gigantic firms ... represented in Washington by one or more powerful lobbying organizations," he says. Big Meat spent "$9 million on lobbying in 2010—not including political contributions to members of the agriculture committees in Congress."
My Take: Well-heeled lobbyists represent industries that promote disease-causing animal products. Not so long ago, the tobacco lobby was equally formidable. But the science showing the dangers of tobacco was more powerful than the tobacco lobby. Public health officials spoke up, and the government cracked down on the tobacco industry. The science showing the dangers of meat is equally powerful. It’s time for the U.S. government to stand up against meat, egg, and dairy industry lobbyists.
"Big Ag in turn supplies the feed grain for Big Meat ... A substantial portion of what we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases linked to diet."
My Take: A broken subsidy system supplies disease-fighting grains to Big Meat for animal feed instead of for human consumption. Meat and dairy subsidies make America sick. A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that “current federal agricultural subsidies focus on financing production of food commodities, a large portion of which are converted into high-fat meat and dairy products” and other items that increase the risk for cardiometabolic risks in American adults.
"Big Food’s biggest victory ... was its success in derailing voluntary guidelines for marketing food to kids."
My Take: Malevolent junk food marketers encourage the consumption of meaty, cheesy fast-food and other junk food. We don’t need voluntary guidelines. We need regulations. Big Food is getting sneaky. McDonald’s recently introduced Olympic-inspired trackers (that were eventually recalled for causing rashes) to “push back at critics who've painted the business as pushing junk food to kids.” But adding a fitness tracker to an order of burgers and fries doesn’t change the fact that McDonald’s is still pushing burgers, chicken nuggets, and fries—all junk food—to kids.
"The food industry even managed to undermine the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act."
My Take: Big food pushed unhealthy school lunches. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough to get chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers out of school lunches. Our report “Who’s Making Money from Overweight Kids?” found that meat and dairy industry makes money when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and School Nutrition Association promote junk foods—such as nachos, chicken wings, and pepperoni pizza—in school lunches.
"While Big Food can continue to forestall change in Washington, that strategy simply will not succeed in the marketplace."
My Take: Consumers are demanding changes that Big Food can’t ignore. As I wrote in The Hill this week: It’s clear that public health organizations, big business, and the tech industry are all working toward helping consumers get healthy by shifting from meaty meals to plant-based diets.
By Rose Saltalamacchia and Neal Barnard, M.D.
With the seemingly constant buzz surrounding what to eat, from the latest "super" foods, to the decades-old dispute of carbs versus fat, it's easy to be confused about what's healthy and what is not. But the jury is in, and the best advice can be summed up in four simple words: Break the meat habit.
Yes, we grew up with it, and, yes, it is front and center on just about every restaurant menu. But breaking the meat habit gives you more power than any other diet shift you could think of. From the first rumblings in cardiovascular research to the modern day studies that link animal fats to cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease, evidence has steadily mounted showing that meat is a problem.
And a recent comprehensive study carried out by researchers at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital makes things abundantly clear. The study was huge--131,342 participants--and the research methods were meticulous. The study analyzed health outcomes based on protein sources, and the results were striking: Participants who consumed more plant-based protein not only live longer, but are healthier longer than their meat-eating counterparts.
Red meat has long been the black sheep of the food world because of its links to heart disease. But new research shows that the problems don't end there: Red meat has also been linked to kidney failure, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. And the new Harvard study showed that all forms of animal protein--including poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs--are part of the problem, clearly increasing the risk of disease and mortality.
For parents, a particular red flag comes from the World Health Organization's recent determination of processed meat as a carcinogen. Processed meat means everyday sausages, bacon, and hot dogs, as well as deli meats, certain kinds of rotisserie chicken, and packaged lunch meats. That means even buying the "all natural" turkey sausage isn't doing your body any good, and that goes double for children.
A recent book, aptly titled Meathooked, makes the case not only that meat poses health problems but also that we seem culturally stuck on meat--turning a blind eye to the problems it causes. Author Marta Zaraska delves into the industry-funded studies that downplay meat's risks. She shows that it takes a watchful eye and wary consumer to be able to seek out unbiased research.
Marion Nestle, Ph.D, M.P.H., of New York University, has been keeping tabs on this phenomenon, finding that industry's influence is ever present, from targeted online campaigns to increase meat consumption among millennials, to shaping government organizations. Nebraska Rep. Adrian Smith introduced an amendment that would block the military from adopting Meatless Mondays. Coincidentally, Rep. Smith hails from Nebraska's 3rd District, which happens to rank as the country's top meat-producing congressional district.
By moving meat out of the center of our plates or, better still, breaking the meat habit altogether, Americans will be able to avert the next health disaster. It's a simple move with an enormous impact, and it's the first step in building a healthier, more sustainable future.
Sign up for Dr. Barnard's Blog
Plant-Powered NFL Playoffs: Titans versus Patriots - January 11, 2018
Healthy Plant-Based Holiday Centerpieces - November 27, 2017
The Healthiest Podcast Ever - November 21, 2017
Stop Sugarcoating Obesity’s Leading Causes - November 16, 2017
"Eat This, Not That" to Defeat Type 2 Diabetes - November 15, 2017