Saturated with milk but not information

by Marina Komarovksy


“Got Milk?” – remember that? As a kid, I used to react to every TV commercial by first identifying the product being advertised, and then devising my very own marketing campaign to convince my parents to purchase it. But I specifically recall being confused about what was advertised in the “got milk?” ads, and even discussing the dilemma with my sister. We loved the commercials, but were they really just about milk? Who was behind the ads? And why?

I finally learned the answer in the recent, attention-grabbing New York Times article “While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales” (2010, November 6). In it, reporter Michael Moss introduces Dairy Management, a program funded by dairy farmers and overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which works to help dairy producers by building product demand. He elaborates upon the role that Dairy Management has played in marketing dairy products through efforts like the “got milk?” campaign, and now by working with chain restaurants to add more cheese to their menus, all in an effort to increase national dairy sales. The issue with cheese is that it is high in saturated fats, which have repeatedly been linked to increased risk of heart disease.

The Times article is full of tongue-in-cheek comments about Dairy Management’s neglect of health concerns in favor of sales figures, their disproportionate budget in comparison with health-promoting agencies, and their inaccurate presentation of research findings. He often uses the phrase “records and interviews show,” which immediately connote cover-up and conspiracy to sensation-seeking readers. But his point is that there seems to be a problem with the “inherent conflicts in the Agriculture Department’s historical roles as both marketer of agriculture products and America’s nutrition police.” If the USDA gives people advice on how to eat healthy in theory, how can it be okay with restaurants serving single menu items containing several times the maximum recommended amount of saturated fat in practice?

The biggest problem, however, is that conflicting messages are leading the public to become increasingly confused about dairy and saturated fat in the diet. Dairy provides beneficial protein and calcium, yet the saturated fat in dairy is portrayed as something to be feared. And the truth is that fat-free dairy products don’t satisfy all palettes. The evidence about the effects of saturated fat is not new and neither is the public confusion. Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, Gershoff Professor and Director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), explains that cardiovascular disease outcomes of high saturated fat and low polyunsaturated intake have been evident since the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, however, the message to the public changed from encouraging the replacement of saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat to discouraging fat consumption in general. This is problematic for two reasons. “The umbrella over all of this is total calories, energy balance,” Lichtenstein points out. “What we have learned over the years is that if we recommend taking something out of the diet, we are going to replace it with something else.” That “something else” should ideally be heart-healthy unsaturated fats that replace saturated fats. However, it often ends up being carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates.  Randomized controlled trials at the HNRCA and elsewhere have shown that this latter change yields no improvement in cardiovascular disease risk.

Fortunately, many people have begun to learn about saturated versus unsaturated fats with respect to cardiovascular disease. According to a 2007 consumer attitudes study which Lichtenstein worked on, 77 percent of consumers were aware that the risk of heart disease was increased by saturated fats, and over 60 percent were aware that it was decreased by omega-3 and unsaturated fats. Half of all consumers surveyed looked for saturated fats on nutrition labels. With more clarity about nutrition recommendations and proliferation of “Nutrition Facts” panels, it seems that in 2007 knowledge about fats was improving.

But there is still relatively little awareness with respect to the issue of dairy in particular. According to the study, only 46 percent of consumers knew that dairy contained saturated fat at all. In addition, while half may make use of nutrition information when they are grocery shopping, today’s consumers are known to eat many of their meals outside the home. And only seven percent of consumers indicated that they request nutrition and ingredient information about menu items all or most of the time when they eat out. In many cases, the information is not even available.  With a lack of knowledge about the saturated fat in dairy, and a lack of information about the amount of cheese added to menu choices, the new move by Dairy Management will potentially put consumers at increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Nutrition education about the advantages of low fat dairy, consumer motivation, and policy initiatives will all be necessary ingredients in making healthy changes.

Marina Komarovsky is an MS-Nutritional Epidemiology/MPH-Health Communication student who is very into apples, mango lassies, hip hop, and swing dancing. She is also moderately into nutritional biochemistry and statistics, and her goal in writing is to relate research findings to those who are not into those things at all. She is currently studying endocrine regulation of metabolism.

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