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Americans have an insatiable demand for pizza cheese

Cheesy Pizza
Eric Savage | Getty Images

Last year, each American ate an average of 11 pounds of mozzarella cheese.

That's about a third of our total per-capita cheese consumption, and more than any other type of cheese, including longtime American favorites like cheddar. It's also the most we've eaten since 1970, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, Americans are drinking less milk than they have in decades — 40 percent less than our consumption in the 1970s. But we've nearly doubled our cheese intake.

Much of that growth had taken place in cheeses outside of what the USDA classifies as "American" types: colby, jack cheeses, and cheddar cheese (with apologies to the English village of Cheddar, where the popular cheese was actually born). Consumption of mozzarella — which is in the USDA's "Italian type" catogory — has exploded in recent decades, beating cheddar for the last six years.

Some of the growth in mozzarella is due to increased demand for pizza. The pizza industry was worth almost $40 billion in the United States last year, approximately 25 percent more than a decade ago, according to data compiled each year by Pizza Magazine. So while cheddar has plateaued, we're living in a mozzarella Renaissance.

"There have been developments in mozzarella production," said John Newton, director of market intelligence at the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents agricultural producers. "Some of the bigger cheese companies have made mozzarella cheeses that can be frozen and reheated but still have the same stretch and feel."

Those changes have made it easier to make better cheese-laden frozen products like the gourmet pizza brands that now populate U.S. freezer aisles, said Newton.

Some of the increase in cheese consumption overall could also be due to a recent glut in cheese of all sorts in the United States, which has depressed prices, said Jerry Cessna, an economist at the USDA. According to the department's data, even with Americans scarfing down record volumes of cheese, total consumption of cheese domestically and through exports hasn't kept up with high production and stockpiles.

All the extra cheese has put downward pressures on prices, making it easier for companies like Pizza Hut to stuff their crusts with cheese and heap generous portions of cheese on top. It also makes deals like McDonald's all-day breakfast more affordable for the company. The same is true for food manufacturers, which have reformulated recipes for processed foods, and for customers browsing the dairy isle at their local supermarket.

"The restaurant industry is very creative in coming up with new ways to put too many calories on people's plates." -Lindsay Moyer, nutritionist, Center for Science in Public Interest

"When you go to the retail store, you can buy more cheese than you could a year ago — prices are down 10 percent," said Newton. "The consumer's dollar goes a lot further, and they can buy more cheese."

Newton said that a billion pounds of cheese isn't as much of a burden as some have portrayed it. That's about the level of inventory that the industry should have waiting in storage to satisfy the level of domestic demand we're seeing, he said.

Nutritionists like Lindsay Moyer at the Center for Science in Public Interest are less enthusiastic about having so much fat-filled cheese waiting to find its way into our diets.

"Cheese consumption is at an all-time high and that rise really shows no signs of stopping," said Moyer. "The restaurant industry is very creative in coming up with new ways to put too many calories on people's plates, and it's pretty easy to throw on some extra cheese, stuff things with extra cheese, or load it up with some cheese."

But this is America, said Moyer, and we will probably continue to eat more pizza than is good for our arteries and waistlines. When we do, it would be good if people tried to find options with thinner crusts, whole grains, more veggies and less cheese.