What the food police don’t tell you about trans fats

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, December 24, 2013

THE average Queenslander will be obliged to walk from Brisbane to Rockhampton to work off the 133,000 kilojoules they will consume this Christmas.

So say the self-appointed tucker police who claim the state’s per capita seasonal intake of food represents the equivalent of 210 million additional meals.

Each gluttonous Queenslander, says Diabetes Queensland, will consume a large packet each of crisps and beer nuts, six cups of potato salad and 30 pieces of deep-fried finger food.

And that is just the appetiser. Next up is two kilos of ham, a kilo of chicken and a kilo of turkey followed – in no particular order – by half a dozen candy canes, a box of chocolates, a dozen mince pies, one Christmas pudding and almost a litre of custard, 36 beers and five bottles of wine.

All up that represents a kilo of saturated and trans-fats ready to turn into “toxic fat covering vital organs like the heart, liver and pancreas”, claims Diabetes Queensland chief executive Michelle Trute. Her advice: “Don’t let Santa leave type 2 diabetes under your Christmas tree.”

Trans-fat, or frankenfat as we are now encouraged to call it, is causing a global food panic. In Denmark trans-fats have been banned along with almost everything else capable of giving pleasure. In Australia, the Greens introduced a bill to ban the manufacture, distribution and sale of trans-fats three years ago, but fortunately it fell on deaf ears.

Food activists have a habit of getting these things wrong, as American historian Harvey Levenstein chronicles in his recent book Fear of Food. In the late 1950s, as the great cholesterol scare began to take hold in the US, food processing corporations – let’s call them Big Marg – began to replace lard with vegetable oil to promote their unappetising, oleaginous product as a healthier alternative to butter.

When it emerged the hydrogenation process used to harden the oils was transforming unsaturated fats into saturated fats, they added liquid oil to produce a partially hydrogenised product.

Some scientists warned that the new trans-fats may be harmful, but their fears were dismissed as groundless by Ancel Keys, the scientist whose theories on the link between diet and cardiovascular disease turned fat into a dirty word.

More than half a century after the birth of what Levenstein calls “lipophobia”, however, evidence of a link between fatty diets, cholesterol and heart disease remains scattered and insubstantial.

Lipophobes tell us to eat less fat and more carbohydrates; sucrophobes recoil in horror at carbs in general and sugar in particular; the protein pushers urge us to eat more red meat and the lipophobes tell us to eat less.

It appears that on average Australians are getting larger, but obesity is hardly the killer epidemic organisations such as Diabetes Queensland or the Obesity Policy Coalition obsess about.

The inconvenient truth is that Australians have the world’s fourth longest life expectancy, leaving New Zealand (17th place) and Britain (27th) in the shade.

The chances of dying from a stroke have more than halved since 1970 and we are 2.7 times less likely to die from coronary artery disease. The prevalence of diabetes in Australia is somewhat lower than the OECD average and half the rate of Canada.

Statistics such as these are job-destroyers for food activists whose task is to replenish the reservoirs of anxiety in the hope of garnering donations.

Thus non-profit health advocacy groups have played an important role in the triumph of lipophobia, says Levenstein.

They are started by “well-meaning people seeking to raise money to cure diseases”, writes Levenstein. Eventually, however, they “mutate into slick machines staffed by professional fundraisers whose hefty salaries (depend) on alarming the public”.

The American Heart Association, formed in the 20s as a forum for heart specialists, is a case in point. In the 50s, the association’s board realised that successful fundraising required more than pleas to help fund research. Its new mission would be to educate the public.

In June 1964, the AHA jumped into bed with Big Marg, urging consumers to give up butter and other saturated animal fats in favour of polyunsaturated vegetable oil products. There was no proof the risk of heart disease would be lowered, an AHA spokesman conceded. Heart disease was “such a pressing public health problem”, however, that it “just can’t be left until the last i is dotted and the last t is crossed”.

If the AHA now regrets pushing trans-fat-laden slime on the toast-eating public, it does not admit it on its website. It does, however, carry a warning: “trans-fats increase your risk of developing heart disease and strokes”.

That claim is something of an oversimplification, for the nature of the link between food, cholesterol and heart disease is still contested more than 150 years after it was first raised. Most doctors are inclined to accept a causal link, but conclusive empirical evidence has proved elusive. Even more uncertain is whether a change in diet can lower cholesterol levels permanently.

For all the bluff and bluster, the epidemiological link is far from straightforward. Evidence of a link between smoking and heart disease, for example, is far stronger.

Our half-starved ancestors who struggled to garner nutrition from Australia’s barren soils in late 19th century would be delighted and amazed at the banquet likely to be served tomorrow in the average Australian home. They might wonder how modern Australians, amid such affluence, could have become so anxious about their diet. Indeed the greatest risk factor for heart disease is not abundance but low socioeconomic status.

“The best way to reduce deaths from it would be to reduce poverty,” writes Levenstein. “But of course there are few experts who advocate this solution.”

On which note, may I wish a merry Christmas to the discerning readers of The Australian and offer some modest gastronomic advice. Whatever you eat, don’t spare the brandy butter.