Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Things We Eat

butter

(Photo: Sea Wave/Shutterstock)

Saturated Fads: Butter Is Back Only Because Our Biases Remain

• April 03, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Sea Wave/Shutterstock)

Was a critically flawed meta-analysis claiming no link between saturated fat and heart disease so quickly lauded by foodies and food writers everywhere because they’re desperate to promote an “eating like grandma” agenda?

A report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on March 17 left meat eaters salivating. The meta-analysis of over 70 studies explored the comparative impact of saturated fat (found in meat, butter, and cheese) and unsaturated fat (found in vegetable oils, nuts, and fish) on heart disease. Challenging decades of conventional wisdom, the authors reported no clear correlation between levels of saturated fat and heart problems. Brashly, they concluded: “Current evidence does not clearly support guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”

Food writers, who have long struggled with promoting meaty recipes without prescribing a heart attack on a plate, were wide-eyed with glee. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman wrote, “Butter is back, and when you’re looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew, you can resume searching for the best pieces — the ones with the most fat. Eventually, your friends will stop glaring at you as if you’re trying to kill them.” Christiane Northrup, writing in Huffington Post, practically urged readers to get thee to the nearest Burger King. “Think about it,” she wrote, “It’s NOT the burger with cheese and bacon that’s the issue. It’s the ketchup, the bun, and the fries.” Michael Pollan, commenting on the Times coverage of the study, tweeted: “About time!”

A lot of “real” food is the seemingly pure and natural culmination of a chemically intensive process, one that we rarely hear about.

As a rule, one should be suspect when any nutrition study is widely celebrated. Sure enough, as so often happens, the other shoe quickly dropped on the saturated fat news. Within days of publication, critics of the study—as well as the researchers themselves—reported a slew of not insignificant errors. In one case the authors misinterpreted a study showing a strong correlation between unsaturated fats and positive heart health and, in another, they overlooked two critical studies on omega-6 fatty acids that presumably did not support their findings.

Scientists were unusually vocal in their critiques. The omissions, according to a New Zealand scientist, “demonstrate shoddy research and make one wonder whether there are more that haven’t been detected.” The authors of the study “have done a huge amount of damage,” Walter Willet, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Science. Deeming the work “dangerous,” he called for a retraction.

Vocal critiques notwithstanding, the media blast touting this study cannot be undone. Willet noted as much, saying, “It is good that [the authors] fixed it for the record, but it has caused massive confusion and the public hasn’t heard about the correction.” A big problem for Willet is meta-studies more generally.”It looks like a sweeping summary of all the data, so it gets a lot of attention,” he said, “but these days meta-analyses are often done by people who are not familiar with a field, who don’t have the primary data or don’t make the effort to get it.”

Just as unfortunate as the apparently flawed meta-study was the quickness with which the food writers pushed it to the center of the media’s plate. Why such zeal? Why not wait until there was some vetting? In one sense, the urge to promote such a study is driven not so much by an inherent love of eating animals as a legitimate disdain for processed junk food. A study such as this one, although not about processed food per se, certainly offers a convenient basis to remind readers that heavily processed “food” parading as low-fat healthy alternatives to “real” food is bad news for the ticker. Typically, it is. So, perhaps the reasoning goes, any chance to clarify this point should be exploited in the interest of public health.

But still, aside from the disingenuousness of using a study on fat and heart health as grounds for condemning processed food, there’s also the dubious manner in which processed foods are condemned. Leading food writers never quite get around to explaining what exactly they mean by “processed” or “real” food. Bittman, who seems to think we can now eggs-and-bacon our way to heart health, evaluates a food’s integrity on the number of ingredients it contains. The longer the list the less real the food. This is not a bad rule of thumb, as far as it goes, but it’s also sort of like judging the quality of a library by the number of books it contains. Plus, if it’s supplemental inputs that we’re concerned about, one could just as easily consult a farm-to-fork list of chemicals required to produce bacon and eggs and find himself wishing he’d paid better attention in chemistry class. A lot of “real” food, in other words, is the seemingly pure and natural culmination of a chemically intensive process, one that we rarely hear about. Get into the genetics behind what you eat, moreover, and things get unreal fast.

What I suspect the media endorsement of this flawed study is ultimately about is promoting the “eating like grandmother” agenda, an agenda that aims to heighten the appeal of the small local farm. This advice is standard foodie fare, combining a romantic notion of pre-industrialized agriculture with an anti-corporate ideology to promote threadbare notions such as eating local, buying organic, and, as Bittman endorsed it in his “Butter Is Back” piece, “avoid[ing] anything that didn’t exist 100 years ago.” These ideas might be seductive in their simplicity, but they’re rooted in soft and shifting sands, leaving consumers to confirm biases without necessarily improving their health or the quality of our food system.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

More From James McWilliams

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.