Saturday, October 5, 2019

"What Margarine Can Teach Us About Climate Change"

Pretty much everything we'll ever need to know.
There are few sources I would trust more to get the science right than National Geographic. That said, "getting the science right" is not the same thing as getting government policy right. In that vein, an article in the Books section of the most recent issue presents an ironic lesson.

Medical historian Paul A. Offit, M.D., has written a book titled "Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong." In it, he describes seven of what he believes to be the world's most damaging "inventions," one of which was margarine. In its June 2017 issue, National Geographic published a fascinating excerpt.

Offit starts by explaining that longer life spans achieved by technological advances in the early 20th century meant that people started dying of heart disease, rather than the bacterial and viral infections that killed so many of us in earlier eras. Noticing low levels of heart disease in certain populations that consumed less dietary fat, some researchers in the 1950s and 1960s posited that consumption of fats and cholesterol was a major contributor to heart disease.

The World Health Organization, United Nations and American Heart Association were quick to jump on these preliminary conclusions -- as was the U.S. government. South Dakota Democratic Senator George McGovern formed a Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in 1968. Nine years later, McGovern's committee issued a "revolutionary report," recommending that Americans restrict their consumption of fats and cholesterol.

The United States Department of Agriculture insisted that nutrition scientists give their "best sense of the data right now" in order to rewrite the country's nutritional guidelines. "Unfortunately," Offit writes, "'the best sense of the data' depended on whom you asked." Despite some solitary voices admitting that "no one really knew whether lowering cholesterol or fat intake" would reduce levels of heart disease, those restrictions became government policy. "Although they didn't know it at the time," Offit says ominously, "Americans were now test subjects in a national experiment." That experiment had deadly consequences.

As it turned out, not enough was known about different kinds of fats and cholesterol. That didn't stop the USDA, FDA, National Institutes of Health and WHO from promoting diets low in saturated fats -- which turned out to play little to no role in heart disease.

Later research showed that trans fats -- like those used in margarine -- were actually much more damaging to health than butter and other animal fats, or tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil. But it took decades for public policy to change. In the meantime, how many heart attacks -- and related deaths -- could be traced to trans fats?


Ill-informed politicians, shrill consumer advocates, inflammatory reporting, overzealous regulatory agency appointees, conflicting data, defamatory accusations leveled against American companies...does any of this sound oddly familiar?

As the author goes on to demonstrate, it most certainly should.


Col. B. Bunny said...

Very interesting post. While not directly related to the point I recall someone on the radio pointing out that you can put an open tub of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" (margarine) in your garage and six months later it will still have nothing growing on it.

I never tested the proposition but it led me to eschew such products and return to my errant, butter-loving ways. I still have very high blood lipid levels but a thalium study some 12 years ago showed my cardiac plumbing was nice and clear. Good thing no one checks my alcohol levels routinely.

In my adult life, particularly during the Cold War, the US government had a lot of credibility with me but now, to put it mildly, not so much. The correct position seems to be that even in the relatively open West the citizen is awash in great waves of [nonsense] on the most basic things. The Constitution is long gone and America is a vicious, imperialist, hegemonic, dishonest, dangerous presence in the world but good luck finding anything like that kind of thinking in the legacy media. Even propositions of utter honking stupidity and putresence issue forth from putative authority figures to be embraced and defended by millions.

So it's not just scientific flapdoodle that afflicts us, but you already know that.

Beans said...

A big push for vegetable spreads was... WWII. Animal fats, including milk fats, were collected and used in explosives and other war material production. So Oleo and margarines came into vogue as butter substitutes.

Then, the war ended, and all that wonderful fat and grease wasn't needed anymore, and the vegetable oils and spreads manufacturers were in trouble. So (play spooky conspiracy music here) they commissioned 'scientific' studies showing that vegetable oils were 'better' for people.

It's one of those weird moments of food history. "How did we get stuck with margarine and not butter?" "Well, we had to beat Hitler and Tojo, so..."