The New York Times has done a fine job pointing out the fishy thing about cheese: the same federal authorities charged with reducing its consumption to help fight epidemic obesity, are directly involved in promoting its sales.  In short, an entity called ‘Dairy Management’ helped Domino’s Pizza out of a slump by encouraging cheesier pies.  Leaving aside questions about the need for an outside consultant to tell you people like cheese, the main issue is this: Dairy Management is a creation of, and accountable to, the USDA.

The very same USDA responsible for taking advice from a group of scientists, and turning it into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  In fact, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are if anything overdue, and presumably imminent- if not, they are destined to be the 2011 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Fans of Michael Pollan, who has long advocated for a ‘food bill’ to replace our farm bill, and/or of Marion Nestle, who spilled the beans on food politics long ago- will likely find this matter no great surprise.  But it clearly is of great concern that the pinnacle of public policy related to diet is directly involved in selling pizza.

Now, of course, just because Domino’s put more cheese on its pizzas doesn’t obligate anyone to buy them, or eat them.  But their sales have predictably taken off thanks to the erudite guidance of Dairy Management. 

This may seem a case of consumer choice, but true choice is informed- and so depends on the quality and accessibility of relevant information.   

The most reliably accessible information for consumers of pizza comes directly from our taste buds: is this pizza good?  But what determines the preferences of our taste buds is just as relevant, and not routinely discussed. 

Abundant appetite research- and, for that matter, clinical and personal experience- indicate that taste buds are very malleable little fellas.  When they can’t be with a food they love, they learn to love the food they’re with.  The American palate could readily shift to less cheesy pizza if that were the prevailing option. 

But the converse is an even easier preference to acquire: the cheesier pizza gets, the cheesier we want our pizzas to be.  The result is akin to a pizza arms race culminating at some great peak of cheesiness beyond which returns diminish.

This is true of the food supply in general.  The more sugar, salt, and creaminess to which we are exposed, the more we tend to prefer.  Large food companies routinely convene to discuss, respond to, and anticipate consumer trends; I know, because I have been invited to share my insights at such meetings.  One insight is this: the companies seem to take no responsibility for CREATING the consumer trends they are discussing.  The addictive-like effects of sugar and salt and cream are well known; the more we get, the more we want.  Food companies could dial these down, instead of up, and help us love food that loves us back. 

Alas, this degree of corporate responsibility is rare without outside pressure.  And the result is that those who practice it generally wind up with small market share to show for their pains.  Taste buds can be rehabilitated- they can learn to prefer better nutrition.  But they need a chance to do so, and don’t get it while bathing in cheese.

And then there is the relevant information other than taste.  Most of us are concerned about our weight and health, just as the USDA is.  So we care about calories, and sodium, and saturated fat, and so on.

To make an informed pizza choice, we would need to have options, and information, before we start to chew.  How do degrees of cheesiness affect total calories, and saturated fat, and salt?  How do various pizza formulations affect overall nutrition?

Armed with such information, I suspect most of us would strike a balance between satisfying our taste buds, and satisfying our conscience.  There is evidence that calorie posting can influence food choice, albeit modestly; I suspect information about overall nutrition could do so far more effectively.  (Financial incentives for more nutritious choices more so still, but that is a topic for another time.)  Good, clear, objective nutrition information should be available everywhere people and pizza- and for that matter people and all food- come together.

For now, we can almost certainly expect some back-peddling by the feds in response to the Times’ embarrassing disclosure.  But until or unless the links that bind public nutrition policy to the interests of agri-business are broken, we can expect with even greater confidence that there will be something very cheesy about our pizzas, and something a bit fishy about dietary guidance.  We are left with the standard precaution for dealing with both: caveat emptor.

-Dr. David L. Katz

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