Overweight America: Is Cheese to Blame?

February 27th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

A new ad campaign is taking aim at the dairy treat.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Call it the power of suggestion: just reading all the news of a tough new anti-cheese campaign made me want to run directly to my refrigerator to see what I had on hand.

Two new billboard ads in Albany, New York, sponsored by a nonprofit group called Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), are as grizzly as some of the new cigarette warning labels. One ad, captioned “your abs on cheese,” features a man’s obese belly, while another shows a woman gripping cottage-cheesy thighs with the caption – you guessed it – “your thighs on cheese.”   

When there are so many other culinary bad guys to go after, what exactly is PCRM’s beef with cheese? "Cheese and other dairy products are the leading source of saturated fat that our kids are swallowing," PCRM’s Neal Barnard told NPR. "And I think most Americans are totally oblivious to it." He said that the artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol counts in cheese are as high as any steak, and that he’d recommend “never” eating it.

Beth Wasniski, a Rotterdam-based registered dietitian, told the Times Union that the organization is onto something. She uses cheddar as an example. On average, an ounce of the popular cheese contains 9.4 grams of fat, including 6 grams of saturated fat. Of 114 calories in an ounce of cheddar, 75 percent are from fat, she said. With cheese, even the classic “all in moderation” rule can’t be applied; Wasniski said people have a hard time gauging portion size – defining “moderation” relative to cheese – so the product poses a bigger dietary problem than can be fixed with portion control.

However, Savita Hanspal, assistant professor of marketing at The College of Saint Rose, said that the negative advertising might not be as effective as the PCRM thinks. Sure, some people will be more conscious of the negative repercussions of cheese consumption, but most consumers think in the present.

The campaign against fat does run contrary to Federal dietary guidelines, which say it's fine to eat small amounts of saturated fat — not more than 10 percent of daily calories. Still, Gothamist notes that the billboards aren’t the only weapons in the organization’s anti-cheese arsenal: it’s already petitioning the Albany school district to cut cheese from its school lunch menu.

To many, it seems that there’s enough nutritional information out there that people should be trusted to make responsible choices. And as NPR notes, the organization’s billboard in Wisconsin, depicting the Grim Reaper wearing a cheesehead hat, just seems downright insulting. Who really thinks that a diet of 100% cheese is a good idea?

Dr. Bernard cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that childhood obesity has tripled in the United States over the last 30 years. In New York State, the obesity rate among children 6 to 11 has quadrupled in 30 years. His point is well taken. But why take aim squarely at cheese, and not, say, Twinkies or bacon or chocolate? How responsible is the message of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine?