Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Mixed Messages of Food Science.

"​Before I came here I was confused about this subject. Having listened to your lecture I am still confused. But on a higher level.​"  -   Enrico Fermi.

A recent article in the Daily Mail once again drew my attention to a subject which has fascinated me for as long as I remember - Food Science. Putting food and science together in the same sentence may seem anomalous to some, but science covers all aspects of human experience, and in no area is science perhaps more controversial than in the positives and negatives of what goes into our stomach. Is what we ingest good, or is it bad?   As you'll see from the following, that depends on what one makes of the mixed messages of food science.

It is said that science is the search for truth, in the physical world anyway (metaphysics is beyond the scope of this post), and if food science is any guide, science also seems to be a matter of personal interpretation, depending on which scientists you choose to believe.

Is that really how science operates? A smorgasbord of theories which arise from the primary data? In no area is this more observable than in food science, where interpretations lead to what can only be called a "wild goose chase". The rumblings of disagreement have been going on for as long as people have debated what's good or bad for us, and in reality it's a microcosm of what science is about - the search for truth. In the case of food science, one is very tempted to echo Krishnamurti that "truth is a pathless land".

The US Department of Agriculture panel, which has been given the task of overhauling the guidelines every five years, has indicated it will bow to new research undermining the role dietary cholesterol plays in people's heart health.

Its Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee plans to no longer warn people to avoid eggs, shellfish and other cholesterol-laden foods.

The U-turn, based on a report by the committee, will undo almost 40 years of public health warnings about eating food laden with cholesterol. US cardiologist Dr Steven Nissen, of the Cleveland Clinic, said: 'It's the right decision. We got the dietary guidelines wrong. They've been wrong for decades.'Doctors are now shifting away from warnings about cholesterol and saturated fat and focusing concern on sugar as the biggest dietary threat.

Source: Why butter and eggs won't kill us after all: Flawed science triggers U-turn on cholesterol fears.

Well that's not quite true about "new research", since the debate about fat and cholesterol has been going on for decades. The New York Times made this abundantly clear in 2002:

These researchers point out that there are plenty of reasons to suggest that the low-fat-is-good-health hypothesis has now effectively failed the test of time. In particular, that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic that started around the early 1980's, and that this was coincident with the rise of the low-fat dogma. (Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, also rose significantly through this period.) They say that low-fat weight-loss diets have proved in clinical trials and real life to be dismal failures, and that on top of it all, the percentage of fat in the American diet has been decreasing for two decades. Our cholesterol levels have been declining, and we have been smoking less, and yet the incidence of heart disease has not declined as would be expected. ''That is very disconcerting,'' Willett says. ''It suggests that something else bad is happening.''

Source:  What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?

A further sampling of the debate.

Government nutrition guidelines recommend a high carbohydrate diet regardless of the ample evidence of the health risks it promotes. Yet, chronic diseases and obesity rates have risen in correlation with a reduced intake of dietary fat. The Food Standards Agency states all individuals’ diets should contain “plenty of starchy foods such as rice, bread, pasta and potatoes”. In addition to this, “just a little saturated fat”.

While science has moved on, nutritional advice lags behind. And in a new study published in Open Heart, a group of researchers concludes that national dietary advice on fat consumption issued to millions in the 1970s to reduce the risk of heart disease which suggested that fat should form no more than 30% of daily food intake lacked any solid trial evidence and shouldn’t have been introduced.

Source:  We’re so indoctrinated that saturated fat is bad that we don’t listen to the science.

Er, the science? Which science?

Yet the Australian dietary guidelines still remain in place:

The Australian Government acknowledges the need to assist Australians in modifying risk behaviours, such as poor dietary habits, that contribute to preventable chronic diseases.

The 2007 National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that the dietary patterns of many Australian children are less than optimal with high consumption of salt and saturated fat, and low consumption of fruit and vegetables. In March 2009, as a result of these findings, the Food and Health Dialogue (the Dialogue) was established.

The Dialogue’s primary activity is action on food innovation, including a voluntary reformulation program across a range of commonly consumed foods. The reformulation program aims to reduce the saturated fat, added sugar, sodium and energy, and increase the fibre, wholegrain, fruit and vegetable content across nominated food categories.

Reformulation targets will be set at challenging levels to deliver real benefits to Australian consumers, while at the same time recognising technical and safety constraints. The reformulation program will be supported where appropriate by activities aimed at reducing and standardising portion sizes and by improving consumer education and awareness of healthier food choices.

Source: Welcome to the Food and Health Dialogue Website.

But wait:

Reversing years of negative press on saturated fats, Time Magazine has finally admitted defeat on this issue, reversing course and admitting that the war on fat was wrong. They even expose the junk science that supports this dietary philosophy.

So why this sudden change of heart on saturated fats?

We reported earlier this year on how commodity food manufactures have admitted defeat in the war pitting margarine against butter: butter won. Butter consumption is at an all-time high now, as consumers wised up before mainstream media told them it was OK to start eating it again.

Source: Time Magazine: We Were Wrong About Saturated Fats.

Choice weighed in with some "guidelines":

Over the past couple of years there's been a flurry of studies and opinion pieces suggesting that saturated fat has been unnecessarily demonised. The ABC TV show Catalyst controversially weighed in on the debate, featuring interviews with commentators who suggested there was no significant evidence that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease.

Around the world, headlines like "Everyone was wrong: saturated fat is good for you" popped up, offering the seductive message that saturated fat is no longer an enemy of good heart health. But should we welcome lashings of pork crackling, pizza, butter and full-fat cream back into our diets?

The answer is no.

Source: Is saturated fat as bad as we've been led to believe?


Malhotra is brave and principled to speak out, yet he is far from a lone voice. In 2010, a major review of scientific studies on fat, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluded that contrary to what we have been lead to believe, "there is no convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease". In the UK, other independent-minded nutritionists and medics, including John Briffa, Zoe Harcombe, and Malcolm Kendrick, have vociferously countered the biggest public health dogma of our times. It's the same story in the US, where influential voices, such as Garry Taubes, Michael Pollan and Robert Lustig, have all called time on the notion that saturated fat is the devil incarnate.

Source: Butter is bad – a myth we've been fed by the 'healthy eating' industry.

So are we confused? You bet.

The wonderful thing about science, at least in regard to Food Science, is that it reserves the right to confuse us on higher levels. Suddenly there seems to be much wisdom in the biblical saying, "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die".

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