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.

 

 

Everfair: Nisi Shawl’s Remarkable New Novel

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Laurie says:

Nisi Shawl is a friend, and when she gave me an advance copy of her new book, I was delighted. I waited until I had real down time to read and review it, and I’m very glad I did.

Everfair, a beautifully written and imagined novel, is the best book I’ve read in a long time.

everfair-cover

The last novel to engross me this much was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker prize in 2009. The two books share an historical believability and a vivid and immersive reality of time and place. Wolf Hall is about an alien time (16th Century England), Everfair about an alien and alternative time (1889-1919). The core of the novel is set in Equatorial Africa, and includes stories that extend to other parts of the world. When I read it, I see the people and their environments with an almost photographic gaze. Shawl has the rare gift of creating a fully realized universe.

nisi-shawl

Unlike most stories in western literature that involve both black and white characters, this is a genuine Black African story, with significant non-African characters, black, white, and asian. The novel is an alternative history to the tragic, murderous colonial story of the Belgian Congo and the death of millions; a story that continues to haunt and reverberate in horrific ways in the modern Congo. In today’s publishing world, Shawl’s tale is a neo-Victorian steampunk alternate history. Shawl is entirely successful in these genres, and in transcending them as well.

Everfair has steampunk battles, romance, international intrigue and politics, evil corporations, spies, family stories, complicated love, and ritual magic fused with steampunk tech.

Shawl has created a complex, tightly woven tapestry that blends history, events and relationships in ways that are difficult to unravel and do justice to in a book review. The novel is a complex human story that blends equatorial African history and religions, Fabian Socialism, African royalty and leadership, colonialism, the Black Diaspora, African ritual magic, Christianity and steampunk science.

Unlike most stories in western literature that involve black and white characters, this is a Black African story, with significant black, white, asian non-African characters.

In her unsentimental novel, Shawl does not indulge in either the pornography of pain and terror or the sentimental pornography of romance, though her story is filled with both. Her characters are all determined to do the right thing, but she is constantly aware that the right thing depends so much on who you are and how you see the world. She deals brilliantly with the complexities of class, and conscious and unconscious racism, and how they affect love and relationships.

My favorite part of the uses of steampunk tech are the remarkable clockwork hand and arm prosthetics used by many of her African characters. (The Belgians punished almost all infractions with amputation of a limb or a hand.) I wish they existed in the real world.

One of the goals of science fiction is to present the possibility of alternative values and ways of being. Shawl succeeds both in her alternate history and in her alternative story about how humans behave and can behave. Violence and conflict are integral to her story, but the power of human cooperation and hope are central to the outcome. In a nuanced and real way, Everfair is not only an excellent book, it is also a hopeful one.

Nisi Shawl says: “I like to think that with a nudge or two events might have played out much more happily for the inhabitants of Equatorial Africa. They might have enjoyed a prosperous future filled with all the technology that delights current steampunk fans in stories of western Europe and North America. And more. In Everfair they do.”

Everfair – Nisi Shawl, TOR Books, September 2016