DEAR DATA DOG: What are you doing for Farmer's Day?

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Apparently, eating cheese, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As noted in the September 1998 edition of Food Review (available at the Economic Research Service Web site: www. econ.ag.gov/epubs/pdf/foodrevw/sept98/index. htm), Americans ate two times as much cheese in 1997 as in 1970 (excluding cottage types, which is understandable). If you don't think that's a lot, consider the fact that during the same period, milk consumption dropped by 23 percent. Since cheese is pretty much just milk that's been in the fridge too long, you have to wonder what's going on.

To be fair, we're not just gobbling up huge chunks of the stuff. We may eat a total of 9.6 pounds of cheddar and 8.4 pounds of mozzarella per capita, but two-thirds of all the cheese we consume comes not in lumps but in commercially manufactured and prepared foods.

And it's not some sort of low-fat-cheese diet kick, if that's what you're thinking. Reduced fat and nonfat cheeses, for the 52-week period ending July 11, 1998, represented only 20 percent of supermarket cheese sales. Nonfat cheese sales actually declined during the same period by 20 percent, while the regular old fatty kind rose by 4 percent.

One factor might be the rising popularity of artisanal cheese, as reported by the American Dairy Association's I Love Cheese site (www. ilovecheese.com). And just so you won't have to go look it up, artisanal cheese is hand-made, rather than factory produced.

Not that dieting seems to make much difference in our cheese eating anyway: 28 percent of dieters in a recent Gallup poll gave up all grains as part of their weight-loss strategy, versus the 15 percent who said they gave up dairy products. Forgoing an entire food group when dieting is hardly recommended by the USDA, whose revised Food Guide Pyramid seems to be as familiar to many Americans as the current head of the department. (Yes, I know: the American Dietetic Association's 1997 Nutrition Trends Survey at www.eatright.org found that 67 percent of respondents were "aware" of the Food Guide Pyramid, but probably the same percentage is "aware" of quantum theory.)

A lot of people these days wouldn't admit to dieting, even if they were. The Calorie Control Council (www. caloriecontrol.org), in a 1998 survey, reported that 39 percent of adult Americans claim to be watching their weight but say they're not on a diet, per se; 27 percent copped to being dieters, while 34 percent said they were neither dieting nor watching their weight (just eating cheese).

You have to suspect that even those who say they're watching their weight are simply watching it accrue. According to The Diet Quality of Americans, a product of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (www.usda.gov/cnpp/INSIGHT7b.PDF), 71 percent of Americans' diets "need improvement." The report uses its Healthy Eating Index to assess overall diet quality: 17 percent of Americans' eating habits are categorized as "poor," which leaves a mere 12percent of Americans with diets that the USDA considers "good." Only 26 percent consume enough milk products to satisfy the USDA's dietary recommendations (only fruit scores lower, at 17 percent); 72 percent, on the other hand, manage to do right by cholesterol. Must be all that bad press.

According to the Data Table Food and Nutrient Intakes by Individuals in the United States, by Region, 1994-96, from the USDA's Food Surveys Research Group (www.barc.usda.gov/bhnrc/ foodsurvey/home.htm), cheese is least popular in the South, where 28.6 percent of individuals eat cheese in a day. By contrast, all other regions weigh in at close to 35 percent. The South also differs by the age group that accounts for the greatest percentage of cheesers: males and females aged 12 to 19 (36.1 percent and 33.8 percent, respectively). In all other areas, it's males and females 20 to 39 who make up the greater percentage of daily cheese eaters, with the exception of the Midwest, where females 12 to 19 mirror their Southern counterparts, at 40.1 percent.

The Food Surveys Research Group also tabulates cheese consumption (as well as all other nutrients) by discretionary income (where you learn that as income rises, so does the percentage of people enjoying a little cheese), as well as by race (35.3 percent of white males and females versus 20.4 percent of black males and females; no one over 60 of either race hits 30 percent).

One thing I won't be doing this Farmer's Day (which, by the way, is on October 12) is farming. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Farmers and Farm Manager Occupational Outlook (stats. bls.gov:80/oco/ocos176.htm) forecasts a continuing decline in employment through 2006. One of the dependable high spots in farming these days is underwater, where aquaculture more than doubled its output of fish between 1983 and 1994. Can you milk a sea cow?

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