The Salt
2:09 pm
Thu February 2, 2012

Billboards Slather On The Guilt With Anti-Cheese Campaign

Yes, we're a nation of cheese-eaters. We load it onto pizza, layer it in burritos, sprinkle it on salads, and slap it on sandwiches.

In fact, we eat about 31 pounds of it per person each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's estimates. That's nearly triple the amount Americans were eating in 1970.

But is cheese the true culprit behind flabby thighs and paunchy bellies?

One group thinks so, and hung unsavory images with that very message as billboards in Albany, N.Y. "Cheese and other dairy products are the leading source of saturated fat that our kids are swallowing," says Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "And I think most Americans are totally oblivious to it."

When you consider all the artery-clogging saturated fat linked to heart disease, and the cholesterol ("as high as any steak you'll find"), how often should we be eating cheese? "I'd say never," Barnard tells us.

Never? Wow. This is a long way from the "everything-in-moderation" message. And it's also out of synch with mainstream nutrition advice. Federal dietary guidelines say it's OK to eat small amounts of saturated fat — not more than 10 percent of daily calories. And heck, cheese does have two things our bodies need: protein and calcium.

But Barnard, who has long advocated that a vegan diet is the healthiest, says Americans would be better off with a clean break. He points out there are plenty of satisfying alternatives.

It's a message that seems to be falling on some deaf ears in Albany. When I spoke to a few people who'd driven past the billboards, they said the images were obnoxious and offensive.

And in Wisconsin, when Barnard's group ran a billboard portraying the grim reaper wearing a cheesehead hat, there was outrage.

All this made me wonder: The French love cheese; are they having this food fight? So I put in a call to the French Embassy.

"I personally eat a lot of cheese and I am not very fat," Antonin Baudry, a cultural counselor at the embassy, told me. Now to be fair, the French are getting heavier, but they're not fingering cheese as the culprit.

And Baudry says he has noticed that there's a big difference between their way of eating cheese and ours.

"I mean, we don't eat cheese inside a sandwich or whatever," Baudry explained. "We stop everything else and we eat it for what it is." That means a treat to savor, usually at the end of a meal.

"We believe in cheese. It's like a religion," Baudry told me as he ticked through a list of his favorites — Camembert, bleu, Pont-l'Eveque.

Yes, it's rich and full of calories. But Baudry says a common expression in French is "fromage ou dessert." Cheese or dessert. "It means you can't have both. You have to choose."

So, what do you think? Could the French style of savoring cheese keep us from slathering it?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Some cheese lovers are taking issue with a new billboard campaign. It's trying to scare them away from their beloved mozzarella and cheddar. One billboard in Albany, New York features a huge photo of an overweight woman. She's squeezing the fattest part of her thighs with a message: Your thighs on cheese, emblazoned across the side.

NPR's Allison Aubrey explains who's hanging these billboards and why.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: There's no doubting the fact that we've become a nation of cheese lovers. In fact, if you're doing your part, as I think I am, we're eating about 31 pounds of cheese a year - each of us. At least this is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. And Melanie Siden(ph) is no exception.

MELANIE SIDEN: I eat it all the time. And, you know, I can't say enough good things. But, you know, I don't have, quote, unquote, "cottage cheese thighs," as far as I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Siden lives in East Greenbush, New York, not far from one of the new anti-cheese billboards. She's always thought of cheese as healthy. So, why the scary close-ups of pouchy stomachs and doughy thighs? Well, the billboards were hung by a group called Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It's led by Neal Barnard.

DR. NEAL BARNARD: If you look at the chemical makeup of what's in cheese, it's mostly saturated fats - the kind that's linked to heart disease. It's very high in cholesterol. Ounce per ounce about the same as any steak you can find, and surprisingly high in sodium. So, how often do you want to eat such an unhealthy food? I would argue never.

AUBREY: Never eat cheese? Barnard, who's a physician by training, has long advocated his personal belief that a Vegan diet is the healthiest way to eat. No dairy, no meat, no animal products at all. Now, this is a long way from mainstream nutrition advice. And federal guidelines say it's OK to get small amounts, up to 10 percent of your calories, from saturated fat, including cheese which does contain two things our bodies need - calcium and protein. But Barnard says his billboards are meant to wake people up.

BARNARD: Cheese is the number one source, cheese and other dairy products, are the leading source of the saturated fats that our kids are swallowing. And I think most Americans are totally oblivious to it.

AUBREY: Barnard argues that we deceive ourselves into thinking that we're eating cheese in moderation.

Barnard argues that we deceive ourselves into thinking that we're eating cheese in moderation when we're not. We sprinkle it on salads, slap it in our sandwiches, layer it in our burritos and slather it on our pizza. In fact, since 1970, our per person consumption has almost tripled. That's a lot of cheese.

But we don't want to hear that message. When I called a few people in Albany who had driven by the billboards, they said they found them obnoxious. And, in Wisconsin, when Barnard's group designed a billboard portraying the grim reaper wearing a cheesehead hat, there was outrage. One farmer even said, what's the problem? Look at the French.

All of this made me wonder. The French love cheese. Are they having this food fight?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello.

AUBREY: Hi. It's Allison Aubrey.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One second, please.

AUBREY: I put a call in to the French Embassy to Antonin Baudry, a cultural attache, who told me the French are not struggling over their relationship with cheese.

ANTONIN BAUDRY: I, personally, eat a lot of cheese and I'm not very fat.

AUBREY: Now, to be fair, the French are getting heavier, but they're not fingering cheese as the culprit. And Baudry says there is a big difference between their way of eating cheese and ours.

BAUDRY: I mean, we don't eat cheese inside of a sandwich or whatever. We stop everything else and we eat it, really, for what it is.

AUBREY: A treat to savor at the end of a meal.

BAUDRY: Camembert, there is brie, bleu, there is Pont-l'Eveque. We believe in cheese. It's like a religion.

AUBREY: And, yes, it's rich and full of calories, but Baudry says...

BAUDRY: A very common expression in French is fromage ou dessert. Means cheese or dessert. Means you cannot have both in your life. You have to choose.

AUBREY: So it's back to the idea of moderation, but doesn't it sound so much more palatable in French? Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.