If you read mainstream media in 2013, you will learn that wheat and sugar are trying to kill you.

It's better not to take them too seriously. While science tends to be rather rigorous in its claims - peer review is an inherently prudent idea that conservative Russell Kirk was likely proud of - health advice is instead based on flitting from one fad to the next, and leading the charge today are the Four Horsemen of the Alternative, Drs. Chopra, Oz, Weil and Gupta, with foot soldiers like Mark Bittman and William Davis gathering up stragglers.

When I was a lad, the war was on red meat and eggs and butter - cholesterol was out. Growing up, I had one parent who preferred margarine and one who preferred butter - but we called margarine by its other name, oleo, both short for oleomargarine. When I was young, I never understood the oleo thing, though I liked the taste more than I did butter (1).  Why would some French guy invent that?(2)

I knew it was hydrogenated oil (but so is plastic, when you think about it) and some milk and when I was a kid experts claimed it was healthier than butter because it didn't have saturated fat. I assumed my father liked it because that was newer technology, butter was what people churned and that meant being poor.(3) We hunted and grew our own food and our house in Pennsylvania was heated by wood(4) so we didn't need any more 'nature', thanks very much, I instead wanted baseboard heat or coal or liquid propane, anything but trudging out to cut logs and then split them. Maybe to my dad, oleo was the future.

Health pundits agreed. Butter was bad. 


Your skepticism is noted. Credit and link: Fark.com

Well, I never quite believed it, just like I will chuckle at someone claiming bread is so terrible today. Sure, I am a fan of natural - I'd much rather have meat I killed than meat from a store, my kids joke about 'Flatlander jelly' they see in stores because we make our own - but there are plenty of artificial products that are just fine. In much the same way that I never got too crazy against one thing, I never get too crazy for any new fad either. 

Call me the anti-Bloomberg, I know I will never write for the New York Times writing sensibly about food. In its never-ending quest to control what everyone eats, New York City banned trans fats years ago - it hasn't helped them be healthier by even a little. More recently, they wanted to ban the size soda you can buy, a quackery-based idea a judge struck down as both 'arbitrary' and 'capricious'. In other fronts of the food wars, marketing departments try to claim bleached white sugar is more 'natural' than high fructose corn syrup. 

Meanwhile, if you ask most people if butter is unhealthy, they will agree, even though it is a whole, minimally processed, natural food - the opposite of the oleo people think is healthier. I can make butter in a mason jar in 30 minutes while I watch TV, no added chemicals needed.

40 years ago, saturated fat caused heart disease. Now it does not. What changed? Well, nothing. If a food fad catches the public's attention, researchers of questionable ethics rush to provide some confirmation bias. We see it now with BPA and high fructose corn syrup and GMOs, just like we saw it with DDT and alar in the past. (5) None of those I just listed were evidence-based health issues yet they have all been used to send the public into a panic.


"There is a Colonial Woman on the Wing of the Plane Churning Butter!" - a funny line from a funny movie, in this instance used by a woman who promotes a lot of unscientific nonsense. Credit and link: Chicago Sun-Times.

People used to ask me how I stayed thin and I would tell them, "I eat like an idiot" - and they would laugh. But I was eating exactly the things that fad-based health pundits said was a bad idea. Meat and eggs and butter and bread and pasta.

Joanna Blythman writing in The Guardian puts it about as succinctly as anyone can: "public health advice is just like any other socially constructed wisdom in that it gains authority through endless repetition."

It's not evidence-based medicine, it's a bunch of people repeating fad notions about science and health.

We have seen a rise in gluten 'intolerance', almost 25X in the last 10 years, not because wheat has changed in the last decade - it hasn't changed in the last five decades - but rather because the tail of gluten-free labels is wagging the 'gluten is bad' dog. Just like "low fat" and "non fat" labels created the perception that fat was bad and that sugar and refined carbohydrates were better for us. But the people who are selling something circle around critics with knives out the same way skeptics of the anti-fat message were reviled for decades.

And the people who cater to the latest craze get best-selling books like Wheat Belly (and then a cookbook! And then a 30-minute cookbook!) and sweet gigs at the New York Times, where they carefully make sure to stay right in the sweet spot of the health consumerism fads they helped create, and never use any critical thinking.

NOTES:

(1) Except for Amish butter. Since they don't read the New York Times, they never got told they were unhealthy and their butter is still terrific.

(2)  Hippolyte Mège Mouriès created it in 1869, after Napoleon III offered a prize for a low-cost substitute for butter. His product, oleomargarine, was created by adding salty water, milk, and margaric acid to softened beef fat. Later, the beef fat was replaced by vegetable oils.

(3) I am the same way. When it comes to antiques, I won't buy them - they are poor people furniture. But I buy old books, because every rich person in movies had a library full of old books.

(4) It was only recently that my wife saw me snap beans for the first time. We were at someone's house and they had them there and I went through them all in no time. She was surprised I knew how to do that so well, despite her having visited the town I grew up in. Wait until she sees me split wood.

(5) As journalist Gary Taubes, who has also long been skeptical about saturated fat, put it generally in an interview here: "I used to joke with my friends in the physics community that if you want to cleanse your discipline of the worst scientists in it, every three or four years, you should have someone publish a bogus paper claiming to make some remarkable new discovery — infinite free energy or ESP, or something suitably cosmic like that. Then you have it published in a legitimate journal ; it shows up on the front page of the New York Times, and within two months, every bad scientist in the field will be working on it. Then you just take the ones who publish papers claiming to replicate the effect, and you throw them out of the field. A way of cleaning out the bottom of the barrel."