How the USDA screwed up the American diet — and deprived me of so much delicious butter
Despite all the healthy-eating advice the US of A has been doling out since the 1960s, Americans aren’t living longer. We’re actually dying sooner. We’re immensely fatter. We’ve got diabetes in droves, high blood pressure in heaps, Himalayas of cholesterol. Maybe we should return to the diets of our forefathers in, oh, say, 1938. (Wonderful satirical essay on changing health paradigms. Ed)
BACK IN THE LATE 1800s, Emperor Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a substitute for butter that would be cheap enough to be used by the lower classes. The winning spread, invented by a chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès and composed of rendered beef fat and skim milk, became known as margarine.
Mège-Mouriès may have won the prize, but he couldn’t fool the French into eating the stuff — not even the poor French — so he sold the patent to a Dutch company.
Later that century, in the face of a beef-tallow shortage (I know; hard to believe), another chemist, from Binghamton, New York, came up with a way to manufacture margarine from a combination of animal and vegetable fats.
The Great Depression further reduced the availability of animal fat, while butter shortages during World War II increased the popularity of an all-vegetable-oil version. The margarine market exploded in the 1950s, just in time for me to be born and for my mom to adopt a succession of disgusting butter substitutes — Blue Bonnet, Parkay, Imperial — as our house spreads.
Butter became a holiday food, only on the table at Christmas and Easter. This was in keeping with a push by the US government, starting in the 1960s, for Americans to consume less saturated (animal) fat in order to combat heart disease and high cholesterol.
This push was bolstered by a study in the late ’60s and early ’70s of two groups of institutionalized mental patients — one fed a typical American diet of the era, the other fed less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vegetable oil. That study showed that the latter diet reduced cholesterol and produced a “favorable trend” when it came to heart disease.
The study’s findings were re-analysed earlier this year by the National Institutes of Health. The results showed that patients in the massive trial who lowered their cholesterol died from heart disease more often than those who did not.
In other words, the research on which the government’s dietary recommendations for the past 50 years were based was exactly wrong.
And that means I spent a lot of years eating disgusting imitation “spreads” when I could have had butter.
IF YOU’VE TRIED to watch what you eat over the past few decades — and who hasn’t? — chances are you’ve come to loathe the federal government, at least when it comes to food advice.
The New Yorker recently ran a satirical piece on this topic that was headlined, “Scientists Decide Thing Previously Thought Healthy, Then Unhealthy, Before Healthy Again, Does, in Fact, Cause Cancer,” which is exactly — yeah.
Quick, what’s this week’s consensus on diet soda? Tuna fish? Red meat? Red wine? You could get whiplash following the bouncing ball of dietary recommendations issued by Washington bureaucrats. Which raises the question of when any of us ever pay attention to recommendations issued by Washington bureaucrats in other arenas.
Really, the speed limit on the Schuylkill Expressway is 55 mph. Do you drive 55 there? If the IRS says you owe $8,000, do you pay $8,000? (Let me give you my accountant’s name if you do.) For most of us, our instinctive urge is to defy whatever Washington tells us. After all, these are the guys who brought us Vietnam, the invasions of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the housing bubble and the TSA.
Yet when those nameless, faceless government bureaucrats decree that we should switch out our Frosted Flakes for oatmeal and cut down on salt and eggs, millions of us do. I wouldn’t trust the federal government to water my plants. Why do I feel differently when it’s telling me what to eat?
Well, for one thing, they’ve been telling me for a long time — all my life, in fact. The USDA's first dietary guidelines were issued in 1894. During the Great Depression, it offered four types of food plans, for different income levels.
World War II saw the issuance of the “Basic 7” food groups, which had been whittled down by the time I entered school to the “Basic Four” — veggies and fruits, milk and dairy, meats and poultry and fish and eggs, and cereals and breads. Charts of the Basic Four decorated every classroom I ever entered; they were a universal driven into our heads along with the alphabet and Pledge of Allegiance and multiplication tables, never to be forgotten.
Even today, seeing a bright, colorful government-constructed food pyramid (or wheel, or plate, or whatever) is like revisiting those happier, simpler times, before quinoa and açai berries and tofu and artisanal toast, when the only thing that was avocado green was your refrigerator......
....AND WHY DID THE USDA slap all those carbs at the bottom? Because lobbyists from Big Agriculture didn’t want corn and rice and wheat to lose their farming subsidies. They still don’t. Did you know that less than one percent of those subsidies go toward vegetables and fruits, while 60 percent go to support production of grains?
Yet the government’s own research shows that Americans with the highest consumption of federally subsidized foods are significantly more likely to be obese, have belly fat, and have abnormal levels of cholesterol and blood sugar. There you are, my friends: The government has your back!
Look, I know this stuff is hard. Science is always changing as researchers learn more about how our bodies work, and that means the guidelines need adjusting. But given its history, couldn’t the USDA be a little less authoritarian and a little more, I don’t know — tentative? Humble?
“Here’s what we think might be best for you now, maybe, given our current state of knowledge” instead of EAT THIS OR DIE? And it wouldn’t hurt to get those subsidies way more in line with what it’s telling us to consume.....