Making a comeback

Written by Emily Battmer

After decades of negative attention, full-fat dairy products such as cheese and butter could be making a comeback. As more nutrition experts, celebrity chefs and scientific groups question the dangers of fat and vouch for more natural foods, consumer trends are beginning to shift in dairy’s favor.

Since the 1980s, fear of dietary fat has shaped consumer habits and dietary guidelines. That’s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in an attempt to quell the emerging obesity epidemic, issued warnings against whole milk, butter and other high-fat foods.

People listened, and whole milk consumption fell 78 percent. But as fat intake declined, it was replaced by processed sugars such as high fructose corn syrup — use of the sweetener rose a staggering 8,853 percent.

“People thought, ‘if it’s fat-free, I can eat as much as I want,’” says Greg Miller, chief science officer with the National Dairy Council. “But what we learned over time was carbohydrates — especially simple carbohydrates — are a bigger problem in our diet.”

Miller says USDA’s recommendations were based on insufficient data. The tools for measuring dietary intake during the late 1970s produced only a partial picture of how what we ate affected our health. Today, despite massive declines in fat consumption, cardiovascular disease remains the No. 1 killer, type 2 diabetes cases are rising steadily, and more than one-third of the nation is obese.

“Now, 50 years later, we are paying the price for people getting ahead of the science,” Miller says. “The data were never really strong, and a number of people in the scientific community cautioned against moving forward with dietary policy related to cholesterol and saturated fat.”

By zeroing in on fat consumption and consequently driving people toward simple carbohydrates and away from dairy foods, dietary guidelines have cost Americans the many health benefits associated with dairy. Milk contains nine essential nutrients, including calcium, potassium and vitamin D — the three nutrients most likely to be missing in the American diet.

Juan Menjivar, DFA’s vice president of research and development for commercial businesses, says the dairy industry has had to fight an uphill battle to overcome negative perceptions of fat and communicate that dairy is an important component of a balanced diet.

“Milk and milk products are a good source of protein, and one of the arguments against dairy has been that it has high saturated fat content,” he says.

In the minds of consumers, the negative effects of fat have historically outweighed the nutritional benefits of dairy — until now.

As more advanced tools give researchers a better understanding of food and its components, understanding of how milk fat interacts with human nutrition also advances. Over the past decade, scientists have gained a deeper understanding of saturated fat, the type of fat most experts encouraged us to sharply limit. Many now think saturated fat exerts a neutral influence on our cardio health.