Holy Cow, Do You Have Any Idea How Much Cheese We Eat?

Americans eat a ridiculous amount of delicious cheese each year. The impact of that is bigger than you think.

Mar 9, 2014 at 2:20PM

Cheese

Photo credit: Flickr/Chris Vaughan.

Gouda. Brie. Pecorino Romano. These are just three of the hundreds upon hundreds of varieties of cheese in the world.

We eat it with crackers and wine, have it on our pizza and our burgers, and if possible we mix it in with nearly every meal. An average American will actually consume about 23 pounds of cheese each year. That's up from just 8 pounds per person in the early 1970s. While there are many delightful benefits to eating more cheese, we do need to be careful about spoiling our appetite by overindulging.

Ah, the power of cheese
Cheese can be a great source of calcium, protein, phosphorus, vitamins A and B12, and zinc. It can improve bone health, reduce high blood pressure, and help manage weight. It can also help prevent cavities, cancer, and osteoporosis.

That said, and stating the obvious, not all cheese offers the same health benefits. Feta, for example, is lower in fat and calories than most cheese, making it a great addition to a salad or soup, as well as a good pairing for sweeter produce. Swiss cheese, on the other hand, is rich in phosphorus which is a key to bone formation and maintaining bone density. Finally, dieters prefer cottage cheese because it's both high in protein and is available in a low-fat variety. It can also be consumed in a combination that makes it either savory or sweet. Finally, like all cheeses, it's high in calcium.

Cheese

Photo credit: Flickr/Paul Wilkinson

The less appetizing side of cheese
Eating cheese, of course, does have its downside. For some it can be very fattening or difficult to digest. Cheese also tends to be higher in sodium which has been linked to hypertension, heart disease, edema, and kidney stones. Some studies have linked cheese and other dairy products to an increased risk for breast, lymphoid, or lung cancer. Other studies suggest that cheese can contribute to developing colic and other allergies. Meanwhile, aged cheese is thought by some to be a trigger for migraines. Finally, and to top all of that, new research from the University of Southern California suggests that eating large amounts of meat and cheese can be as deadly as smoking. 

In addition to the health risks of consuming too much cheese, our increased appetite for this dairy product is having a greater impact on the environmental. In the Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change + Health the Environmental Working Group noted that the different foods we eat have a measurable impact on our environment. The organization was able to quantify that impact by determining the greenhouse gas emissions produced by 20 common foods. Cheese was found to have the third-worst impact on our environment.

 Holy Cow

Holy cow! Photo credit: Flickr/Jenny Brown.

One reason for this is because the cows and sheep that produce the milk that is made into cheese have a large environmental footprint. Both animals have a unique digestive process called enteric fermentation, which releases large amounts of methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Add to that the environmental impact of feed production for the animal, as well as processing and transporting the cheese, and we have a food that has a pretty big environmental impact.

The Environmental Working Group found that every 4 ounces of cheese we consume had the same carbon footprint as driving a car nearly 3.5 miles. Based on the cheese consumption of the average American, that means each of us produces the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving a car 322 miles each year just from eating cheese. With a population of more than 313 million in the United States, that amount of cheese-eating suggests an environmental impact equivalent to driving a car 101 billion miles.

Food for thought
People have been making cheese for more than 4,000 years. While it might not be the perfect food, it does offer a number of health advantages, in addition to the fact that it's just so delicious. The key for cheese lovers is to eat in moderation and to eat the healthier, less processed varieties whenever possible.

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