Butter is Better!

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I Can Too Believe It’s Not Butter.

An acquaintance of mine observed to me this week that “Unilever has the butter market cornered.”

“Really?” I asked, wondering if they maybe owned a dairy that manufactured private label butter for grocery stores.  I was surprised, since I have always heard that the dairy market is very fractured.

“Yeah, they have I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Promise, Country Crock, and this other one that’s made with yogurt.”

Um, not the same.

We’re Good.  But We’re Not That Good.

I believe in the triumph of human ingenuity and in technology’s ability to transform our lives in ways that improve our efficiency, productivity, longevity, and even happiness.  So how have we done with nutrition?  Have we come up with the iFood?

Not exactly.

How Did We Get Here?

In the early 20th century,  Proctor & Gamble figured out how to turn literal garbage, specifically cottonseed oil, into food.  Next thing you know, we’re all eating Crisco and margarine.

P&G claimed Crisco was healthier than butter (this was before truth-in-advertising regulations required proof for health claims).  Researchers tried to find a link between saturated fat and heart disease.  The American Heart Association looked into it and concluded there was no evidence supporting the connection.

But a man named Ancel Keys spoke louder.  Using cherry-picked data from only the countries that demonstrated the correlation he was looking for, he “proved” that saturated fat caused heart disease.  He was criticized at the time for his shoddy research methods.  But U.S. Senator George McGovern caught wind of this new research and decided it would be irresponsible for the government to withhold this information while waiting for more research to corroborate it.

(The whole story is like a sordid soap opera.  Read about it here.)

But the thing about government is that it has a way of stifling dissent.  That’s how it came to be that the American Heart Association reversed its position and started recommending low-fat, high-carb diets as heart-healthy.  Scientists who didn’t get in line with government orthodoxy had a harder time getting research funding, so the voices of dissent were quieted.  Later, curious researchers had no reason to investigate the link, because there was scientific consensus–after all, no one had ever proved there wasn’t a link!

Crisco and margarine (trans fat) became dietary staples, and butter (saturated fat) became a guilty pleasure.  The health-conscious among us followed the American Heart Association away from fat and towards “heart-healthy” carbs.

So How Did We Do?

Oops, turns out trans fats cause heart disease (a 2% increase in trans fat consumption correlates to a 23% increase in heart disease risk!) and low-fat, high-carb diets cause obesity.

What Now?

Well, we can’t eat margarine anymore, so what can we substitute for it??  You know, I have this crazy idea.  What if we just ate butter?

Ironically, given all the hubbub, butter from grass-fed cows is actually really heart-healthy!  It’s one of nature’s best sources of Vitamin K2, which is critical for heart health, as well as things like blood clotting and bone health.

And now the mainstream is finally catching onto the fact that this whole saturated-fat-causes-heart-disease hysteria just might not be the truth.  I was surprised and delighted to read, in the New York Times, of all places, that butter is back.  A recent meta-analysis concluded there simply is no link between saturated fat from animals and heart disease.  The whole article is well worth reading, but this is the part that resonated most with me:

But let’s not cry over the chicharrones or even nicely buttered toast we passed up. And let’s not think about the literally millions of people who are repelled by fat, not because it doesn’t taste good (any chef will tell you that “fat is flavor”) but because they have been brainwashed.

Rather, let’s try once again to pause and think for a moment about how it makes sense for us to eat, and in whose interest it is for us to eat hyperprocessed junk. The most efficient summary might be to say “eat real food” and “avoid anything that didn’t exist 100 years ago.”

The Takeaway

There’s a fine line between harnessing our intelligence to drive technological progress and, well, hubris.  Whether we like to believe it or not, there is a limit to what we know.  And so far, our track record with food isn’t good.

Think about that next time you read about lab-created meat substitutes or 3D printed food.  When it’s hard to distinguish between progress and looming catastrophe, the safest course is to stick with what we know for sure works: eat real food.

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