James McWilliams—a historian who has made a name for himself in prestigious publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic for his contrarian defenses of the food industry—is back at it. In an item published last week in the excellent Pacific Standard,
McWilliams uses the controversy over a recent study of saturated fat as
a club with which to pummel food industry critics like the Times' Mark Bittman.
Here's what happened: A group including Harvard and Cambridge researchers analyzed
72 studies and concluded that there's no clear evidence that ditching
saturated fat (the kind found mainly in butter, eggs, and meat) for the
monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind (found in fish and a variety of
vegetable oils) delivers health benefits.
Bittman responded to the study's release with a Times item
declaring that "butter is back." His real point was more nuanced than
that, though. The study's conclusion "doesn't mean you [should] abandon
fruit for beef and cheese," he wrote. Rather, he urged, "you [should]
just abandon fake food for real food, and in that category of real food
you can include good meat and dairy."
Not so fast, McWilliams countered. He pointed out, correctly, that
the study turned out to have errors, which the authors had to correct.
But even after the corrections, the study's lead author stood by the
overall findings, Science reported. Another one of the authors told Science
that the study's main problem was the way it was covered by media. "We
are not saying the guidelines are wrong and people can eat as much
saturated fat as they want," he told Science. "We are saying that there is no strong support for the guidelines and we need more good trials."
Of course, headline aside, Bittman didn't fall into that trap. He
merely urged his readers to accept some fat when they're "looking for a
few chunks of pork for a stew," and to use real butter in place of "I
Can't Believe It's Not Butter." Indeed, Bittman's call for moderation in
eating animal products is long-standing—he's the author of a book
called Vegan Before Six and a longtime champion of the "Meatless Mondays" practice.
But McWilliams' real beef (so to speak) ultimately didn't involve the
study itself, or the debate over fat's place in our diets. Rather, it
centered on Bittman's critique of the food industry, which Bittman
blamed for stoking the public's fat phobia, and manipulating it to its
own ends. McWilliams chides Bittman for the "disingenuousness of using a
study on fat and heart health as grounds for condemning processed
food," and laments the "dubious manner in which processed foods are
But he misses an important point: You can't meaningfully debate the
role of fat in our diets without looking hard at the way the food
industry has manipulated the evolving scientific consensus around fat.
On NPR last week, reporter Allison Aubrey showed how widespread fat phobia among the public gained traction from a 1977 decree
by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated
fat—which then got interpreted by the food industry as a license to
promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus
Simultaneously, as Bittman correctly noted, trans fats—cheap
vegetable oils treated with hydrogen so that they remain solid at room
temperature—emerged as the food industry's butter substitute of choice
for decades, providing the main substance for margarine. Based on
relentless food industry marketing, generations of people grew up
thinking trans-fat-laden margarine was healthier than butter—even after
science definitively showed that it was much, much worse (a sorry tale I
laid out here).
These fat-related marketing triumphs, quite profitable for the food
industry, coincided with a surge in diet-related health troubles,
including heightened obesity, diabetes, and metabolic-syndrome
rates. Bittman is correct to discuss highly processed food in the
context of the controversy over fat; and in trying to force it out of
the conversation, McWilliams is playing his usual role:
reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional