Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter

 

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The One-Two Punch That Devastated Dairy

It hasn’t always been easy trying to market dairy products over the past 60 years or so, what with dairy products coming under criticism for numerous alleged nutrition-related offenses, ranging from saturated fat and cholesterol to sodium.

During this period, it’s often seemed like it was the dairy industry versus the health establishment, and the health establishment kept coming up with more reasons to avoid dairy products, or at least reduce consumption of traditional (full-fat) dairy products.

As it turns out, the so-called health establishment had at least a couple of industries working in the background, conspiring to pin all sorts of ills on dairy and other products that contained dietary fat in general and saturated fat in particular. Those industries were the vegetable oil industry and the sugar industry.

The role of the vegetable oil industry (or companies marketing such products) in shaping the connection between saturated fats and heart disease is detailed in Nina Teicholz’s 2014 book, The Big Fat Surprise.
The “real heavyweights” in shaping federal nutrition policy back in the 1970s wasn’t the dairy, egg and meat groups, but rather the “big food manufacturers,” such as General Foods, Quaker Oats, Heinz, the National Biscuit Company and the Corn Products Refining Corporation, Teicholz wrote.

In 1941, these companies had set up the Nutrition Foundation, which “steered the course of science at its very source by developing relationships with academic researchers, funding important scientific conferences, and funneling many millions of dollars directly into research,” Teicholz wrote.

“The promotion of carbohydrate-based foods, such as cereals, breads, crackers, and chips, was exactly the kind of dietary advice large food companies favored, since those were the products they sold,” she continued. “Recommending polyunsaturated oils over saturated fats also served them well because these oils were a major ingredient of their cookies and crackers and were the principal ingredient in their margarines and shortenings.”

Among the other results from this push: “From the early 1960s, consumers were advised to replace butter with margarine or Crisco and always to choose vegetable oils over animal fats as part of a healthy, prudent diet,” Teicholz noted.

In her book, Teicholz also touches upon the other “enemy” of the dairy industry over the past half-century or more: the sugar industry. In 1999, when the lead Italian researcher from the infamous “Seven Countries” study went back and looked at the data from the study’s 12,770 subjects, he noticed that the category of foods that best correlated with coronary mortality was sweets, more specifically sugar products and pastries.

That brings us to 2016, when, as reported on our front page last week, a report published online by JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that the sugar industry sponsored research to influence the scientific debate to cast doubt on the hazards of sugar and to promote dietary fat as the culprit in heart disease.

The report describes how the sugar industry sought to influence the debate over the dietary causes of coronary heart disease in the 1950s and 1960s. And so, by the 1980s, few scientists believed that added sugars played a significant role in CHD, and the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published in 1980, focused on reducing total fat, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol for CHD prevention.

The internal documents used for the report released last week indicate that the Sugar Research Foundation, which later evolved into the Sugar Association, initiated CHD research in 1965 and its first project was a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967.

That review concluded there was “no doubt” that the only dietary intervention required to prevent CHD was to reduce dietary cholesterol and substitute polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat in the US diet. That review was published “without disclosure of the sugar industry’s funding or role.”

So there you have it: the vegetable oil industry and the sugar industry have been conspiring for years against dietary fat, saturated fat and products that contain them, including dairy.

How did their efforts impact the dairy industry? For one thing, per capita butter consumption fell from a peak of over 17 pounds for a number of years back during the first 40-plus years of the 20th century to under six pounds by 1966 and under five pounds for every year from 1972 through 2007 (with the exception of 1984, when consumption reached five pounds). Thanks to that drop in consumption, the US butter production record, 1.872 billion pounds, was set way back in 1941.

And sales of whole milk fell from a peak of 44.7 billion pounds in 1966 to less than 20 billion pounds by 1993 and a recent low of 13.9 billion pounds in 2013.

Fortunately for the dairy industry, there have been at least a couple of positive developments in recent years.
First, Nina Teicholz’s book, the JAMA Internal Medicine report and others are shedding new light on the industry influence that long shaped dietary advice. And that advice is slowly changing, as health professionals and others realize how wrong the “saturated-fat-is-bad” mantra really was.

Second, per capita butter consumption and whole milk sales are on the upswing, as consumers begin to realize that saturated fat isn’t the dietary villain it’s been purported to be and taste wins out. The health establishment continues to lag on this realization, but eventually, science will win out, and so will full-fat dairy products.

If you don’t believe the pendulum is swinging back toward saturated fat, just ask somebody in the margarine business. DG

Cheese Reporter welcomes letters to the editor. Comments should be sent to: Dick Groves by Fax at (608) 246-8431; or e-mail your comments to dgroves @cheesereporter.com.

 

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