by Mark Ziemann, R.N.
“For every complicated problem there is a solution that is simple, direct, understandable, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken
Everybody knows that saturated fats are unhealthy, just like everybody knew once upon a time that the earth was flat. The saturated fat myth has seriously compromised the heart-health of Americans, and it’s all based on a Big Fat Lie. Here’s how this fairy tale came to be….
How Bad Science (And Urban Health Legends) Get Started
Once upon a time, not so very long ago in a place called Nebraska (where the corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye) there lived a handsome young man who was very wealthy and powerful and kept himself very fit. This young man worked hard making millions of dollars in the construction industry and he loved to eat hamburgers. Though he was a very happy young man with a fine family and a successful business, all was not well. One day the young man became very sick. He suffered a heart attack, and almost died.
The young man’s doctors were very skilled and they saved the his life, but this turn of events frightened the young man very much and he set out to discover why such a dreadful thing happened to him. He found out that his blood cholesterol was high and his doctors told him that this was the cause of his heart attack. Without questioning whether this was true or not, the young man made up his mind to ensure that this would never happen again. He set out to learn as much as he could about heart disease and cholesterol, and quickly decided that the foods he was eating were to blame for his troubles. You see, the experts at that time believed that certain kinds of fats called saturated fats would cause high blood cholesterol and dangerous buildups of a substance called plaque in peoples blood vessels. The young man listened carefully to these “experts,” and being a fine young man who wished to help others avoid the troubles that he had experienced, he decided that he would do everything in his power to make sure that saturated fats never ever harmed anyone again.
The young man wrote many letters and spent much of his own money to take out big newspaper ads telling people how they were being poisoned by saturated fats. He made a lot of people believe in the same things that he believed – that is, that saturated fats were bad and would make them sick and had no place in a healthy diet. The young man’s efforts were quite successful and many big companies were forced to change the way they cooked their foods. They stopped using the saturated fats, and began to use fats that were created especially for them by big industries in big factories. They said that these fats were healthier, and the young man was pleased.
The young man became very popular, and dedicated the rest of his life to his mission of spreading the word about “bad saturated fats” and cholesterol to all who would listen. He didn’t live happily ever after, but he did live a long life, and became known as “America’s Number One Cholesterol Fighter” before he became sick with heart failure and passed away just a few years ago.
While this sounds like a fairy tale, it really isn’t. Philip Sokolof was a handsome and wealthy young man who suffered a heart attack that was blamed on high cholesterol and who dedicated himself and his millions to becoming a self-described “amateur cardiologist” and championing the cause of removing the saturated fats that he believed caused elevated blood cholesterol levels from the American diet. While his intentions were good, his science was shaky (he was a high school graduate, not a biochemist or a doctor – much less a cardiologist) and his misguided campaign resulted in the replacement of stable, healthy saturated fats with artificially created trans fatty acids that we now know as extremely dangerous “trans fats.”
Big Business (Can You Say “Proctor and Gamble”?) Helps Promote the Sat Fat Myth
While Sokolof was largely responsible for the vilification of saturated fats in America, he was not alone. The campaign against saturated fats actually began many years earlier, and Sokolof’s efforts were going on at the same time as the efforts from other political organizations were gathering momentum. A few years prior to Sokolof’s efforts, in 1986, the American Soybean Association began a campaign protesting the importation of competing palm and coconut oils. Two years later the “watchdog” organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, took up the cry against saturated fats with the publication of a booklet that was later found to contain mistakes, errors of biochemistry, and erroneous statements about the fat composition of foods. This concerted campaign against saturated tropical oils paid off, and ” fats” have been considered poison ever since by mainstream medicine and nutrition “experts.”
To discover why saturated fats have been given such a bad rap we need to go a little further back into history – perhaps as far back as the riverboat days of Mark Twain, but at least to the Second World War, when Japanese forces occupied much of the south Pacific and supplies of most of the tropical oils in the US were cut off for a number of years. Americans turned to home-grown substitutes: polyunsaturated oils such as corn, peanut, cottonseed, and a product of the aforementioned American Soybean Association, soy oil. As the use of these oils grew the growers and industries involved in their production became more powerful and eager to protect their market at any cost.
At this same time, in the early 1950′s, America began to notice a sharp increase in rates of cardiovascular disease and researchers were looking for answers. A study conducted by a Russian researcher found that rabbits, fed with animal fats (cholesterol) added to their feed developed fatty deposits in their skin and other tissues, including their blood vessels. (I’ll bet those normally vegetarian bunnies wondered what they were being fed!) Another sensational study relied on autopsies of American soldiers that had died in the Korean conflict and found that many of those examined had buildups of arterial plaque – atherosclerosis. (Which surely couldn’t have had anything to do with the military diet of the day, right? Or with the popularity of cigarette smoking?) This study, which made major news at the time, overshadowed other studies of the period which showed similar degrees of atherosclerosis in populations which had less mortality from heart disease despite high fat and high meat diets, or that ate far more vegetarian diets and suffered similar degrees of atherosclerosis, and generally indicated that the thickening of the arterial walls is a natural and unavoidable process. The press took the headline-grabbing autopsy results and ran with them using their usual logic of “the rooster crows every morning, and then the sun rises: therefore, the crowing of the rooster is what makes sunrise happen!”
During the 1960′s the attack on saturated fats continued with unabated vigor: despite scientific studies showing a decided lack of benefits companies such as Mazola and Proctor and Gamble promoted their vegetable oil creations as being especially healthy, and medical journals of the day promoted Fleischman’s unsalted margarine as being especially good for patients with high blood pressure. The American Medical Association was initially skeptical of all this hype but after the American Heart Association published its dietary guidelines damning animal fats and praising vegetable oils the AMA quickly fell into line. In 1966 a little self-help book called “Your Heart Has Nine Lives” advocated the substitution of vegetable oils for butter and other so-called “artery clogging” saturated fats. This book was sponsored by makers of Mazola Corn Oil and Mazola Margarine – no surprise – and was widely and freely circulated.
And that brings us to the handsome young man with his clogged arteries. Despite volumes of evidence to the contrary, saturated fats have been the “fall guy” for coronary artery disease since the 1950′s when in fact, as early as 1956 one researcher had suggested that the increasing use of hydrogenated vegetable oils might be the underlying cause of the CAD epidemic. Unwilling to stand idly by and let profits be imperiled by such things as health or humanitarian concerns, the massive and powerful edible oil industry in the United States has obfuscated, bullied, manipulated, and outright lied to protect it’s burgeoning market share. Supporting the flawed science of Philip Sokolof and pressuring legislators to adopt the anti-saturated fat / tropical oils legislation that he promoted was just good business.
Setting the Record Straight about Sat Fats
So, just what are these so-called saturated fats, where do they come from, and what are they used for? Well, the answers to these questions might be a surprise – sat fats are not what we have been led to believe. The most exact answers to the question “what is a saturated fat?” require some tedious and complicated science, and there are varying degrees of saturation. It is easier to simply think of the properties of “hardness” of fats.
A fat that is fully “saturated” would be as hard as wax, and quite indigestible. Fats that are almost totally “unsaturated” are very liquid, easily absorbed, and not at all common in the natural food supply. This “hardness” of fats is also dependant upon temperature. Many fats are liquid when warm, and solid when cold. Butter, for example, is quite hard when refrigerated, but soft at room temperature. Animal fats such as beef fat, lard, or chicken fat, while usually called “saturated fats” are actually not so: they are mixtures of naturally occurring fats and are actually less than half “saturated.” So-called “saturated fats” include things such as cocoa butter, dairy fats (milk fats and butter for example), palm oil, and tallow. Even breast milk is high in saturated fats! Monounsaturated fats include most animal fats, olive oil, canola oil, and peanut oil. Polyunsaturated fats include corn, cotton, and soybean oils, borage and primrose oil, flax seed oil, and fish oil.
Then there are the “modified” oils: oils that have been altered through a process called “hydrogenation” to make them more useful for certain applications. Margarine is a perfect example of hydrogenation: liquid oil such as cottonseed oil or corn oil, something that humans would never eat in nature, is altered to make it more solid and hard at room temperature. Crisco is another example – the name stands for CRyStalized Cottonseed Oil. The degree of hydrogenation is varied according to the desired use of the oil. Heavily hydrogenated oils might become stick margarine, while less hydrogenated or “partially hydrogenated” oils would become “spreads” or other “food products.”
Then there are the “trans fats” that have been in the news lately. These are fats that have had their molecular geometry altered, either on purpose or accidentally, and they are with very few and minor exceptions, not found in nature. Trans fats, when eaten by humans, tend to have some very bad effects on our bodies as they enter our cells and change how the cell walls function. Effects of trans fats in humans (and animals too) range from unfavorable changes in cholesterol levels to causing blood to become more “sticky”, to reduced ability to utilize insulin and increased blood sugar levels and increased weight, to alterations in hormone balances, and more. Trans fats are really only a very small step away from polyunsaturated fats – many polyunsaturated fats can be turned “trans” simply by heating them too much in cooking!
So, what does all this mean in more practical terms? It means that we must choose our fats carefully, and use them wisely. It means that we must cautiously weigh the claimed benefits of the vegetable-based hydrogenated “designer fats” that are so very commonplace in our modern “fast foods / prepared foods” diet against the known benefits of those traditional and natural fats that have been a part of mankind’s diet for millions of years.
We humans have evolved over the millennia as creatures that are well-adapted to, and in fact require, animal fats and proteins in our diets for optimal health – the claims of the vegetarian and vegan folks notwithstanding. Indeed, our very first meal, at our mother’s breast, supplied us with a high energy drink that gave our tiny bodies the cholesterol needed for development, and a special fat called Lauric Acid. This Lauric Acid, which is also found in the now-vilified tropical oils coconut oil and palm kernel oil has very strong antifungal and antibacterial properties and helps our tiny infant bodies develop strong immune systems. We are very well equipped to utilize fatty acids in the form of saturated fats such as dairy fats, and monounsaturated fats such as animal fats and olive oil. It is only with the advent of modern industrial processes that polyunsaturated fats such as corn and soybean oils have been available for our consumption – though fish oils (a form of polyunsaturated animal fat) have historically been considered to be healthy.
Why You Should Eat Butter and Lard
Butter, as another example, has a far healthier composition as a saturated fat than the synthesized creations that are the various margarines. Being a combination of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats it is not as “stable” as margarine – that is, it will turn rancid (a form of turning “trans”) if not refrigerated. But then, who would eat rancid butter? It also contains a variety of health-giving vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
Does anyone remember the jar of bacon grease that was a fixture in every kitchen before the days of “spray-on” cooking oils, non-stick fry pans and fat-phobia? My mother carefully saved the grease from the morning bacon, and it was used to cook all sorts of wonderful things, from our morning eggs to delectable entrees and even desserts. We keep a jar of bacon grease in our own kitchen – it is far healthier than the canola oil and soy lecithin and “propellants” (your guess?) that are in our can of “no stick cooking spray.”
Then there is our obsession with “vegetable oils” as found in the aforementioned Crisco shortening. It is interesting to note that Proctor and Gamble, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, or perhaps in a belated fit of conscience, has sold off the Crisco name and product. This “all vegetable oil” creation, once made from cottonseed oil, is now made from canola oil which must be hydrogenated (as was the cottonseed oil) to make it semi-solid. Smuckers, the new owners of Crisco, claims “Our entire line of Crisco Shortening products have been reformulated to contain zero grams trans fat per serving”. Can anyone reading this remember the days when lard was used? All-natural, no-trans-fat lard that made such wonderfully fluffy pastries and flaky pie crusts? Do we really think that humans are well-equipped to consume the kinds of oils that require bushels of rape seed or corn or soybeans per gallon to produce? Any more than we might be equipped to consume petroleum oils – no matter how they are “modified”?
Just like our handsome young man who made it his life’s mission to vilify healthful fats, we live in a fairy-tale world where we are led to believe that with a little help from chemistry and science we can fool mother nature into allowing us to consume “food products” that our bodies were never intended to have to deal with. Unfortunately, life in that fairy tale world is having very real and very serious consequences for Americans and people around the world who are buying into the anti-sat-fat fantasy being promoted by the vegetable oils industry. We are gambling our health and our lives and our future on a grand industrial experiment, and it is paying off with increasing rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and more.
At the beginning of the last century, most of the fats in our forefathers diet were either saturated or monounsaturated, mostly from butter, lard, tallow, coconut oil and small amounts of olive oil. Today most of the fats in our diet are polyunsaturated from vegetable oils mostly from soy, as well as from corn, safflower and canola. Before 1920 coronary heart disease was a rarity in America, causing no more than 10% of all deaths. Today heart disease accounts for at least 40% of all deaths. Is there a connection? We believe there is, and a growing body of scientists, researchers, and health care professionals is beginning to stand up to the politically correct diet dogma that is dictating low fat diets and vegetable fats instead of animal or tropical fats. For a historically interesting end to this article we go back to 1956 when Dr. Dudley White, in a television interview, noted that heart disease in the form of myocardial infarction (heart attack) was almost nonexistent in 1900 when egg consumption was three times what it was in 1956 and when corn oil was unavailable. When pressed to support the low-fat, vegetable oil based “Prudent Diet”, Dr. White replied: “See here, I began my practice as a cardiologist in 1921 and I never saw an MI patent until 1928. Back in the MI free days before 1920, the fats were butter and lard and I think that we would all benefit from the kind of diet that we had at a time when no one had ever heard the word corn oil.”
Former surgeon general Dr. C. Everett Koop even said, during congressional hearings in 1988: “the coconut scare is foolishness. . . To get the word to commercial interests terrorizing the public about nothing is another matter.” Could it be that it is time to turn away from the dangerous designer oils and fats of Big Industry and return to the animal and tropical fats that served our ancestors so well? We think it is!
Finally, let’s look briefly at this current medical fad that demands that we reduce cholesterol levels in our bloodstream to the lowest possible levels. Remember, cholesterol is essential to life; so essential that your liver will make it “de novo” – from new – if your body senses that it doesn’t have enough of this precious material. Even conventional medicine, in the form of The Framingham Report – the oldest, longest, and biggest study into heart disease in history – determined that when total serum cholesterol is reduced below 160 the risk of heart disease actually increases. Even more interestingly, the Director of The Framingham Study, Dr. William Castelli said in the July 1992 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine “At Framingham, we found that the people who ate the most saturated fat, the most cholesterol and the most calories weighed the least, were more physically active and had the lowest serum cholesterol levels.” We can only imagine the dismay that this information must have cause for Philip Sokolof; he must have been aware of it as it was published over a decade before his death. Nevertheless, Sokolof persisted in his efforts to vilify saturated fats and remove cholesterol from the American diet and we can only guess as to why he would continue these efforts in the face of research showing them to be wrong, even harmful. Was he simply too stubborn to accept the facts that proved him wrong, or was he too fully caught up in the whirlwind of Big Politics, Big Industry, Big Agriculture, and Big Pharmacy to be able to change? We’ll never know…
1.) Sokolof article http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/11/26/health/main585849.shtml
2.) Sokolof death http://www.blogofdeath.com/archives/000902.html
3.) D Groom, “Population Studies of Atherosclerosis,” Annals of Int Med , July 1961, 55:1:51-62; W F Enos, et al, “Pathogenesis of Coronary Disease in American Soldiers Killed in Korea,” JAMA , 1955, 158:912
4.) “Hydrogenated vegetable oils might be the underlying cause of the CAD epidemic”
A Keys, “Diet and Development of Coronary Heart Disease,” J Chron Dis, Oct 1956, 4(4):364-380
5.) Excerpt from “The Coconut Diet: The Secret Ingredient That Helps You Lose Weight While You Eat Your Favorite Foods” by Cherie Calbom http://www.enotalone.com/article/3242.html
6.) http://easydiagnosis.com/articles/oiling.html “The Oiling of America” by Enig and Fallon – many rerferences following this 4 part series.
The Weston A Price Society Enig & Fallon article “The Skinny on Fats”
8.) Framingham Study reports re: total cholesterol <160:
“There is a direct association between falling cholesterol levels over the first 14 years and mortality over the following 18 years” (11% overall and 14% CVD death rate increase per 1 mg/dL per year drop in cholesterol levels). Anderson KM JAMA 1987
9.) The Honolulu Heart Study:
“Our data accord with previous findings of increased mortality in elderly people with low serum cholesterol, and show that long-term persistence of low cholesterol concentration actually increases the risk of death. Thus, the earlier that patients start to have lower cholesterol concentrations, the greater the risk of death.” Lancet Aug 2001.
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