Talking Fat

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Last spring, my trendsetter sister-in-law was serving Bulletproof Coffees with a tablespoon of Brain Octane Oil. Time flies with this brew synapsing through the neuron terminals. My sister-in-law was reading Nora Gedgaudas’ new book, Primal Fat Burner. Maybe the high octane fuel had hijacked my reasoning powers but, from the lengthy summary my sister-in-law provided, it sounded like Gedgaudas had broken new ground on what we should be eating or, more to the point, the foods we should avoid. I placed the book on hold at Albany Public Library, waited two months before buying it myself (there were 12 holds on the first copy returned of four copies at the public library…library patrons are on to something when they are willing to wait this long for a book!). I also bought Dr. Mercola’s Fat for Fuel for a point of comparison. What follows is a summary of the two authors’ research on the place of fat in the modern diet.

A Dinner Table History of Fat

At the turn of the last century, around 1900, most Americans were either farmers themselves or they lived in rural communities that had close ties with farms. Processed food didn’t come into play until Kellogg’s put Corn Flakes® on the store shelves, along with canned foods from Heinz and Campbell’s. Still, “locally grown” was the norm. Foods were whole and unprocessed, and free of pesticides and fertilizers.

Then, oil entered the picture.

Wesson Oil, basically a waste product of cottonseed oil, revolutionized the American kitchen. Cottonseed oil had been used in soap and fuel for lamps before Wesson sold their cooking oil to American consumers. But when electricity became more accessible at the outset of the 20th century, cottonseed oil manufacturers had a glut on their hands. Dr. Mercola frames the picture clearly enough and quotes this from Popular Science: “What was garbage in 1860 was fertilizer in 1870, cattle feed in 1880, and table food and many things else in 1890.”

Most consumers know enough today about the perils of cooking oils, but we should also be reminded of their rancid history. Cottonseed oil, as one example, was unpalatable in its original state. It’s cloudy, with a red tint of gossypol, a phytochemical that is toxic to animals. Manufacturers had to develop a cleansing process to make cottonseed oil acceptable as a food product. Like most vegetable oils, it’s a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) with multiple bonds in its molecular structure that wreak havoc on our cell membranes. Unstable fats make our cellular makeup prone to oxidation, which leads to a host of modern-day health issues, including inflammation and atherosclerosis.

The real trouble begins, though, when Crisco Oil hits the store shelves around 1911. Procter & Gamble introduced Crisco to the public as the “ideal fat,” notable for its purity and for being “all vegetable.” Yet these supposed wonderful qualities depended on trans fats to make them more appealing in the kitchen, the very same type of fat that has now been implicated in heart disease. These early corporate marketing efforts provide a sobering glimpse into the public’s confusion over good fats versus bad fats. This shift from animal fats to industrially processed vegetable fats took a serious turn at the beginning of the 20th century when Americans were consuming under nine pounds of industrially processed fats annually (mostly margarine and vegetable oils). This number doubled by the 1950s.

Despite manufacturers’ claims of health benefits from refined vegetable oils, heart disease dramatically up-ticked by the mid-20th century. Few people questioned the connection with these new fats in the American diet. And as our collective fear of fat grew, an American physiology professor, Ancel Keys, helped stoke the fire. Keys was intrigued by the low rate of cardiovascular disease among Italians, who liked pizza, pasta, cheese, olive oil, and plenty of red wine, with very little red meat. Keys published the now famous Seven Countries Study in 1970, soon after Time magazine put him on their cover as the 20th century’s most “influential nutrition expert.”   The study demonstrated that a diet high in saturated fats was linked with a high rate of cardiovascular disease, and has since been cited by more than a million other studies that demonize saturated fats. By the 1970s, the medical community and mainstream media urged the public to stop eating lard, butter, and bacon in favor of bread, pasta, and margarine, with low-fat dairy and vegetable oil. The U.S. government got on board with the same guidelines and, as Mercola, Gedgaudas, and a host of others contend, the American public has been paying the price ever since.

By 1977, the national dietary guidelines had assumed a radical departure from a diet high in saturated fats. Americans were encouraged to cut back overall fat consumption by 30 percent. Here, Dr. Mercola implicates national dietary guidelines as disastrous for the American diet: “No one knows for sure just how many premature deaths have resulted from this low-fat diet recommendation, but my guess is that this number is easily into the hundreds of millions.”

Stay tuned to the Co-op Voice for the continuation of this series on fat in diets.  The next article in this series will discuss why the low fat diet has been a miserable failure.