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Butter Makes a Triumphant Return
December 24, 2016
“There’s a new book out about diet, and it apparently says what I’ve known all my life—protein is good for you, carbohydrates are bad, and fat is highly overrated as a dangerous substance. Well, it’s about time. As my mother used to say, you can never have too much butter,” Nora Ephron wrote in 2010 in her book I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections.


And over the past several years, diet book after diet book continues to tout the harmlessness—and even the benefits—of some fats. From the paleo diet to Michael Pollan’s discovery of the benefits of grass-fed cattle, mounting research suggests that saturated fat may be healthier than processed carbohydrates like sugar and white bread, which have been linked to diabetes, obesity and heart disease, since June of 1911, when Procter & Gamble introduced the first shortening made entirely of vegetable oil to the world. It would be called Krispo. The company eventually decided Crisco would be less assuming.

As free cookbooks promoted recipes featuring Crisco, the product worked its way into cupboards across America. Procter & Gamble began branding Crisco as a healthier, lower-cholesterol alternative to traditional butter and lard shortenings. “There were ads that claimed Crisco was more ‘digestible’ than butter or lard shortenings because it was “lighter” and less greasy,” says food historian and visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Historical Studies Dr. Xaq Frohlich. “The main appeal to health was that Crisco was a modern, ‘clean’ manufactured food, whereas animal lard was stained by its association with the meat-packing industry.”

Meanwhile, the coronary heart disease epidemic was beginning. Countless physicians in the 1920s and 1930s reportedly saw the once-uncommon diagnosis quickly become a leading cause of death. By 1950 heart disease became the leading cause of death in the United States, a statistic that’s still true in today.

In the wake of such a drastic upturn of coronary problems, a Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys conducted his famous Seven Countries Study, comparing the health and diet of nearly 12,000 middle-aged men in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. Keys found that populations that consumed large amounts of saturated fats in meat and dairy had high levels of heart disease, while those who ate more grains, fish, nuts, and vegetables did not. Keys tirelessly advocated the theory that saturated fat caused heart disease. In 1961 he persuaded the American Health Association (AHA) to issue America’s first-ever guidelines targeting saturated fat.

“Food marketers, and, in particular, vegetable oil companies selling cooking oils, margarines, and products like Crisco, responded to this medical concern by highlighting ‘P-S ratios’ (high polyunsaturated to low saturated fat) in their vegetable-based products,” Dr. Xaq Frohlich says. “Popular diet science and nutrition-labeling rules in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to this trend because [they] emphasized the negative role of saturated fats, instead of total calories. But fat plays a major role in how flavor is perceived in food, so when you remove it to make a food ‘lite,’ you need to replace it with other natural- or artificial-flavor enhancers. When packaged diet foods started to grow in popularity, companies often relied on added sugars and salt to compensate for the blandness of low-fat foods.”

Scientists and nutritionists would soon come forward to oppose these new nutritional guidelines. In 1972 English professor John Yudkin argued that sugar was the cause of heart disease in wealthy nations, not fat. In 1999 researcher and nutritionist Dr. Mary Enig showed that the anti-saturated fat campaign was based on politics, instead of science, in her article “The Oiling of America.” In 2002, in the New York Times article “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” science writer Gary Taubes detailed how low-fat diets likely only led to carbohydrate consumption and obesity, ruining Americans’ health.

But it didn’t matter: Consumption of low-fat foods, plants, and unsaturated fat-based products, like soybean oil, margarine, shortening, and canola oil, skyrocketed, increasing by 1163%, 1038%, 170%, and 167%, respectively, from 1909 to 1999. Soybean oil alone, which accounted for only 0.006% of total calorie intake in 1909, became the fourth-largest contributor of American calories by 1999.

As Americans continued to eat less saturated fat—and even smoked less—rates of heart disease and obesity reportedly only increased.

Then, Robert Atkins brought his message to the masses. In 1965 he appeared on The Tonight Show to promote a new low-carb, high-fat weight-loss plan. In 1970 the low-carb diet gained widespread popularity when it was published in Vogue, and became known for many years as “The Vogue Diet.” This weight-loss method started a sea-change of eating saturated fat and protein instead of carbs to lose weight. At the height of its popularity in 2003 and 2004, one in 11 Americans claimed to be on a low-carb diet.

Years of research continued to pardon saturated fat, but it wouldn’t be until 2015—more than 100 years after vegetable-based shortening was introduced to replace it—that the consumer push for natural and whole foods would invite butter back onto the table.

“Our sales have absolutely increased,” says Beth Ford, Group EVP and COO of Land O’Lakes Inc. “Land O’Lakes is a nearly 95-year-old brand, and we’re seeing sudden, tremendous growth. Over the last two years alone, our demand on a pound basis is up 15 percent from just two years ago.”

The USDA raised its 2016 butter price forecast in 2015 due to stronger-than-expected domestic demand, and the price of butter has gone up accordingly. Today even McDonald’s has swapped out margarine for real butter in its Egg McMuffins, increasing the nation’s annual butter consumption by an estimated 20 million pounds. But even in the face of butter’s triumphant return, some experts warn we should not over-compensate for our past mistakes.

“It’s not the worst thing on your plate,” says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. Mozaffarian helped to conduct a large-scale meta-analysis study in the journal Plos One and found minimal links to butter consumption and heart disease. “It is a kind of middle-of-the-road food—something that we shouldn’t seek out as a health food, but not something that should be avoided at all costs, either.”

By: Claudia McNeilly
Source: Vogue


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