WASHINGTON Shredded cheddar or Parmesan adds zest to salads. Soft, gooey mozzarella is a must for pizza. Burgers are blanketed with melting slices of American, Swiss or Monterey Jack.
Cheese is everywhere, and consumers are eating more of it than ever before a trend that has been on the rise since the mid-1940s, the Agriculture Department says. A typical consumer now eats 30 pounds of cheese a year, far more than the 6-pound annual average of 1944.
Don Blayney, a department economist, said people are eating more cheese mostly because many restaurants and eateries are putting it on all sorts of dishes.
''That 30 pounds includes all of the cheese that you would get on a pizza and all of the cheese you would get on a burger,'' he said. ''And if you look at cheese consumption, only about 20 percent or 35 percent is through grocery stores, so the rest of the cheese is going into different outlets the hotels, the restaurants, the fast food outlets.''
Pizza is largely to blame for the jump in cheese consumption, Blayney said.
In 1990, pizzerias bought $1.4 billion worth of pizza cheese. By last year, they bought $2.5 billion worth, according to the National Association of Pizzeria Operators. They account for more than half of all cheese sales.
Pizza Hut, owned by Yum! Brands, is the largest pizza chain and the largest buyer of cheese. It uses more than 300 million pounds of cheese for its pizzas every year.
Although consumers are eating all sorts of cheese, mozzarella, the common pizza topping, and cheddar are the most popular. Consumers gobbled as much as 9 pounds of each in 2001, the Agriculture Department said.
Cheesemakers clearly are profiting from the craze. Joan Behr, a spokesperson for the farmer-owned cooperative Foremost Farms USA, said production is gradually increasing with the rise in demand. The cheese cooperative is making $1 billion in annual sales.
The Wisconsin-based manufacturer turned out 347 million pounds of cheese in 1995. Last year, the cooperative made 496 million pounds. It makes all types of cheese Muenster, Colby, cheddar, provolone and Monterey Jack, among others. Much of it is sold to restaurants.
To make cheese, processors add a protein called rennet to milk to make it curdle. As curd forms, workers stir it, heat it and drain the liquid whey. They then collect or press the curd to make cheese.
Processors create a flavor by curing the cheese at certain temperatures and storing it at different moisture levels. Manufacturers in the United States produce over 300 different kinds, according to the National Dairy Council.
Cheese is cheap, partly because of high milk production. Farm prices for cheddar are about $1.50 per pound 10 cents below the price of a few years ago. Consumers pay about $3.70 per pound for cheddar at the supermarket.
Cheese is a source of calcium and protein, but the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest worries that people are eating too much of it. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition at the center, said cheese is one of the fatty products contributing to the nation's obesity problem.
''People think of (cheese) as a health food when really it's quite calorically dense, and it's just loaded with fat,'' Wootan said.
Because some milk products are high in saturated fat, the Agriculture Department recommends in its dietary guidelines that only the young and people over age 50 should have three servings a day. For people age 19 to 50, two servings are sufficient.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is disturbed by the dairy industry's new promotion campaign, ''3-A-Day for Stronger Bones,'' which encourages eating the maximum three servings per day. The center argues that the campaign could lead consumers to overindulge.
''Cheese people will talk about what a great source of calcium it is, but the damage that saturated fat can do to your heart is much more than the health benefits to your bones,'' said Wootan. ''There are healthful ways of getting of calcium without clogging your arteries.''
An ounce of cheddar cheese contains 6 grams of saturated fat about one-third of the government's recommended daily intake.
The National Dairy Council, which is spending $40 million on advertising this year, argues that most people aren't eating enough dairy products to meet the government recommendations.
''People aren't getting enough calcium,'' said Deanna Rose, a spokesperson for the group.
Rose noted that several low-fat cheeses, like feta and mozzarella, are widely available at supermarkets. An ounce of either has 4 grams of saturated fat.
Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has a theory about why some people are eating more cheese.
''It's addictive,'' said Barnard, who believes consumers would be healthier if they stopped eating meat and dairy products.
Citing a 1981 study by Wellcome Research Laboratories in North Carolina and a 2000 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, Barnard said cheese appears to be addictive because it contains casein, a fine milk protein that is found in products from chocolate to cosmetics.
''Casein breaks apart in your digestive tract to release casomorphines,'' Barnard said. ''These are opiates.''
The National Dairy Council said it doubts that cheese has a drug-like effect on people.
On the Net:
USDA Economic Research Service: http://www.ers.usda.gov
National Dairy Council: http://www.ilovecheese.com
Center for Science in the Public Interest: http://www.cspinet.org
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