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Americans pile on the cheese

If you're like most consumers, you'll shovel down 30 pounds of the creamy stuff this year. Six decades ago, that number was 6 pounds.

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2003

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 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.

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.

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. U.S. manufacturers produce over 300 kinds of cheese, according to the National Dairy Council.

Cheesemakers clearly are profiting from the craze. Joan Behr, a spokeswoman 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.

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, said cheese is one of the products adding to the nation's obesity problem.

"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," Wootan said.

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 getting enough calcium. Spokeswoman Deanna 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 in chocolate and 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 druglike effect on people.

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