Butter? Fat? Sugar? Or Is Capitalism the Real Health Risk?

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Laurie and Debbie say:

Until recently, in the world of food science and public perceptions of food health, FAT was the villain, sneaking around trying to get into your arteries and clog you to death, while SUGAR was an ineffectual sidekick, who might make you gain weight but was otherwise harmless. Recently, those characters are being reversed: SUGAR is being shown up as more of a killer, while doubt is being cast on FAT’s crimes.

In June, PLOS ONE published a very large meta-analysis on the health effects of butter, one of the scariest of the FATS. The analysis included 9 studies

reporting on 636,151 unique participants with 6.5 million person-years of follow-up and including 28,271 total deaths, 9,783 cases of incident cardiovascular disease, and 23,954 cases of incident diabetes

In brief, the results were that butter consumption did have a “weak” association with overall mortality, even though it showed no correlation with heart disease and stroke, and a negative correlation with Type 2 diabetes (people who ate more butter had 4% less Type 2 diabetes).

Although this study got a lot of press, including from celebrity cookbook author Mark Bittman, there can be no doubt that most people still think of butter as a substantial health risk.

This month, a lot of news outlets reported on a Journal of the American Medical Association article  about how the sugar industry lied and cheated to make fat seem like a much more serious culprit in cardiovascular health, and sugar an effectively unimportant player.  Vox says:

New research, published today in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that Big Sugar  may have done more than just advocate for favorable policies. Going back more than 50 years, the industry has been distorting scientific research by dictating what questions get asked about sugar, particularly questions around sugar’s role in promoting heart disease. …

Through an examination of archival documents, the JAMA paper shows how a sugar trade association helped boost the hypothesis that eating too much saturated fat was the major cause of the nation’s heart problems, while creating doubt about the evidence showing that sugar could be a culprit too. Sugar increases triglycerides in the blood, which may also help harden the arteries and thicken artery walls — driving up the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.

The JAMA paper and the popular articles about it that we’ve seen don’t reference the butter study. So the two topics are kept separate and reports on both of them go out of their way to offer a million versions of “but FAT is still bad for you.” That’s the “faith sentence” of the food science world.

What’s really going on, of course, is that not only are butter, fat, and sugar commodities, so is a great deal of 20th and 21st century science. As both the JAMA paper and the PLOS ONE paper note, knowing who funded a study or a group of studies is at least as important as the results. Often, you can successfully surmise who funded a study by what its results are. Funders such as the sugar industry (or the oil industry or the pharmaceutical industry) commission studies and let the scientists know what results they want and — surprise! — the scientists want to get more grants and more funding, so they all too often find the results they were asked for.

The skewed papers are published, and the media immediately picks them up: media that is funded in substantial part by the same powers-that-be that funded the studies. Then the media simplifies the story and shapes to fit the popular misinformed narrative, making it even more in line with the original funders’ intent.

Under capitalism, the big money interests own both the majority of the facts we can get our hands on, and the majority of the sources we can get our facts from. minor accomplice (like FAT) are singled out because they don’t have a big trade association protecting them. Protected villains (like SUGAR) get a free pass.

Does this sound at all like anything else you hear about in the news? Yeah, we thought so too. Privilege is everywhere.