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The cheese wars

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Last Sunday, the lead story in the New York Times was a food-politics fracas, detailing the apparent hypocrisy of the USDA in telling Americans that saturated fat is bad for them while helping the Domino's pizza-delivery chain develop and market a line of pizzas loaded with cheese.

Granted, encouraging Americans to eat massive quantities of fast food (and supporting a single corporation in the effort) is questionable. But, as reporter Michael Moss noted, the USDA is a federal agency stuck with the long-term consequences of its own PR efforts:

bq. Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. 

What to do with that surplus milk? Turn it into cheese, of course, a more shelf-stable product than milk, and try to get shoppers to buy it. The USDA wants Americans to eat well, but the agency is also supposed to help American food producers succeed. Sometimes, those goals conflict.

Hidden at the heart of the article was another American problem: Moss's unquestioning reiteration of the standard USDA line that saturated fat is bad for you.

bq. One slice \[of the new Domino's pizza\] contains as much as two-thirds of a day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and is high in calories. 

What's odd here is that the Times is also known for articles arguing just the opposite: that a diet high in saturated fat isn't necessarily worse for you than a diet high in unsaturated fat. The chief figurehead for this alternative theory is science journalist Gary Taubes, who in 2002 wrote a provocative magazine article for the Times titled "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" His championing of a diet low in refined carbs made him a hero to such traditional-diet folks as the Weston A. Price Foundation and such low-carb proponents as the Atkins dieters.

The magazine article led in turn to Taubes' magnum opus, the 2007 book Good Calories, Bad Calories, which exhaustively detailed the history of how the low-fat-diet hypothesis became dogma in American culture. One of Taubes' many targets in the book was New York Times health reporter Jane Brody, whose dietary prescriptions are exactly opposite to those of Taubes.

Confused yet? If you feel like it, wade deeper into the murky Times waters with conflicting Times reviews of Good Calories, Bad Calories,_ by John Tierney and Gina Kolata.