Artwork: Severin Roesen
Back in the early 90s, one of the most pervasive sources of misinformation weaved its way into mass media, a source that is widely believed even today. Despite numerous revisions and an updated scientific consensus, it permeates through schools and educational institutions.
The source in question is the USDA Food Pyramid, introduced in 1992 and the first of its kind to not only separate food into common groups, but also recommend daily servings of each.
Many took the pyramid at face value. It was the guidebook for healthy living with facts that were easy to swallow (forgive the pun). Teachers, parents, and doctors finally had something concrete to rely on as a source for good eating.
What wasn’t considered, at least initially, was where the ‘recommended daily servings’ came from. As it turned out, they were largely influenced by the struggling grain industry.
On the pyramid, complex carbs and other foods developed from grain held the largest share, with a whopping 6-11 recommended daily servings. This pushed fats and oils, which had begun to dominate food industry revenues, to the top of the pyramid.
Fat, in particular, became a scare tactic for advertisers, and the market was saturated with ‘low fat’ products to respond to consumers’ increased aversion to fat. Diet companies went bonkers, advocating in any way they could that fat was the cause of all things unhealthy.
Scientists began to discover two glaring problems with this consensus: Firstly- that fat actually doesn’t make you fat, and secondly- that sugar and artificial sweeteners, which food companies were piling into their low-fat alternatives to make up for their blander taste, were the real culprits behind soaring levels of obesity.
But the USDA food pyramid was firmly situated in the public conscious, and although diet companies and low-fat products were multiplying, obesity was too. We are currently feeling the full effects of this colossal misinformation.
Despite the fallout, however, marketers were doing some clever strategic thinking.
Dairy companies, who were flooding supermarket shelves with skim milk in response to the public outcry against fat, suddenly found themselves with an abundance of milk fat and nothing to do with it.
This milk fat was turned into vast storages of cheese, and businessmen were scratching their heads as to how to sell it.
It was strategic thinking that produced the simple insight that saw processed cheese become a lucrative industry: Market cheese as a condiment that can be added to any number of foods to improve the flavour.
Processed grated cheese was born.
Nowadays, grated cheese is used as a topping on everything from pasta to sandwiches, soup, meat, and even curries. In the Western world, cheese became the staple ingredient of pizza, despite traditional Italian pizza having little to no cheese at all, and certainly none that was grated.
Grated cheese continues to be popular, all because of strategic thinking that found a source of revenue for something that would otherwise have been disposed of.