The American Heart Association (AHA) waged a war on fat, and won. As late as 1999, AHA was recommending that Americans grab “soft drinks” instead of fatty foods (like milk). Until 2001, “gum-drops” and “hard candies made primarily with sugar” were advised for snacking to avoid fat in the diet.

Does this sound like elite nutrition advice from one of the country’s supreme medical associations? If your answer was “no,” you may want to pick up a book I just finished, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” by Nina Teicholz.

I first heard about the book through an article in The Wall Street Journal by the book’s author, and immediately did a fist-pump and high-fived anyone I could when I read the sub-headline – “Are butter, cheese and steak really bad for you? The dubious science behind the anti-fat crusade.” Obviously, I’m vested from a business perspective, but it’s nice when science tastes good, too.

Raging against a marketing machine

To solve the above riddle of soft drinks and sugar, would it help if I told you the American Heart Association was launched, in-part, by Proctor and Gamble? Yes, P&G, the brilliant marketing group behind brands like Tide, Gillette, and Duracell. The top 25 P&G brands reach over $1 billion in annual sales each year.

But, P&G isn’t known well as a food company. It started as a candle and soap maker in 1837, with William Procter and James Gamble joining up as experts in the respective fields. The pair married sisters and started P&G at the urging of their father-in-law.

These American icons marketed lard in 1870, a by-product of the animal processing industry. But in 1911, P&G launched Crisco as a substitute to animal fats. The hydrogenated oil product was the first vegetable oil that would stay in solid form.

Of course, Crisco was a direct attack on butter. To help convince bakers and cooks to make the switch, in 1912 the “Tested Crisco Recipes” cookbook was produced and home economics schools were conducted throughout the country. That same year, Upton Sinclair’s fictional tale, “The Jungle” gave the meatpacking industry a black eye.

Fast forward to 1948, when P&G made the AHA the recipient of a $1.7 million campaign, which is over $16 million in today’s dollars. This transformed the AHA from a small, struggling nonprofit to a fundraising machine.

The donation coincidently was close to the time that heart disease became the leading killer – even President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955 – and Dr. Ancel Keys’ “Seven Countries” study, evaluating fat consumption in seven countries he hand-selected. I should note that Keys is from my alma matter, the University of Minnesota. And, after reading the book, I’m convinced he played a huge role in wiping fat from the American diet, to the detriment of many Americans.

In 2002, Crisco joined the J.M. Smucker Company.

Science in the wrong hands

Teicholz’ book reads somewhat like the scientific reviews I’m now used to through my graduate studies. If completely true, and I have no reason to doubt that nearly all of it is, it appears that Keys was a great promoter of his work; but unfortunately his work was not science. After the first few chapters, Teicholz explains how many fallacies our nutrition system is built on – noting that none of the studies were ever done on women and children.

One of the biggest issues with all the “science” Teicholz digs up is that it creates a circular cobweb of old data. More and more studies cite Keys’ own studies each year, but the results have never been reproduced. This is in part due to the fact that nutrition studies are inherently very expensive.

Adding insult to America’s health woes, this “science” was turned over to a congressional committee for the final say on the issue. The lead staffer on the project was very weary of the dairy and meat lobbies, although the nutrition advice by the country’s cereal makers was accepted.

“Surprise” focuses on nutrition and details little about the macroeconomic impact on livestock producers. During that time much has changed, and Teicholz argues we should be looking beyond fat for solutions to America's health woes. Since 2001, AHA and USDA have quietly removed the 30 to 35% fat targets for their suggested American diet. Where should we be? Neither will say.

In 1970, AHA began supporting the low-fat diet. Between 1970 and 1997, whole milk dropped from 214 to 73 pounds per person, while skim milk grew from 14 to 124 pounds. Estimates from the book say that adults eat about 50 pounds of red meat today, and another 50 pounds of poultry. That compares to 175 pounds of red meat in the early 1900s, and 136 pounds a year for the poorest families (poultry was saved for only the most special occasions).

We’ll dig deeper into what the little science there is does say about fat on Friday. Until then, stock up on butter, meat, and cheese, because who knows when the tides will change?


Stay tuned for:

Part 2 – The science of fat and oil (Friday, June 27)

Part 3 – The sad state of science (Monday, June 30)