The Revisionist History of Healthier Fries

Here comes the news that Burger King has engineered a lower fat, lower calorie fry. I don’t really care and five will get you ten that whatever they did will make french fries even more fattening and unhealthy . But what got my goat in the article was this:

Roughly a decade ago, McDonald’s began using a soy-corn blend of fats instead of beef tallow to cook its fries in an effort to reduce the trans fats that contribute to higher cholesterol.

What actually happened was this:

At the behest of the Center for Science in the Public Interest that delicious, wholesome (relatively wholesome) beef tallow was replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. That campaign started in 1984 and was victorious in 1990 when the chains abandoned tallow in favor of trans fat laden partially hydrogenated oil.

NPR’s Dan Charles:

But did you know that in the 1980s, health activists actually promoted oils containing trans fats? They considered such oils a healthy alternative to the saturated fats found in palm oil, coconut oil, or beef fat. In 1986, for instance, the (CSPI), described Burger King’s switch to partially hydrogenated oils as “a great boon to Americans’ arteries.”

It wasn’t until 1993, after stampeding the fast food industry into greatly multiplying the nation’s consumption of what may be the single most deadly ingredient in our food supply, the CSPI reversed course and began campaigning against trans fats.

Here’s The Harvard School of Public Health on the dangers posed by trans fats:

Today we know that eating trans fats increases levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, “bad” cholesterol), especially the small, dense LDL particles that may be more damaging to arteries. It lowers levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) particles, which scour blood vessels for bad cholesterol and truck it to the liver for disposal. It also promotes inflammation, an overactivity of the immune system that has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Eating trans fat also reduces the normal healthy responsiveness of endothelial cells, the cells that line all of our blood vessels. In animal studies, eating trans fat also promotes obesity and resistance to insulin, the precursor to diabetes.

This multiple-pronged attack on blood vessels translates into heart disease and death. An analysis of the health effects of industrial trans fats conducted by researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health Department of Nutrition indicates that eliminating trans fats from the U.S. food supply could prevent up to 1 in 5 heart attacks and related deaths. That would mean a quarter of a million fewer heart attacks and related deaths each year in the United States alone.

McDonald’s and Burger King didn’t remove trans fats from their menu until 2008.

Michael Jacobsen’s obsession with saturated fat caused the organization to tout the benefits of partially hydrogenated oils well after their dangers had been established. This didn’t stop them from changing course when the dangers of trans fats had been exposed without apology or acknowledgement. The history of trying to engineer low fat, low calorie foods that make us fatter and sicker is a long one, but CSPI has been there every step of the way. The trans fat french fry debacle was just the pinnacle of their blundering.

Mary Enig at The Weston Price Foundation traces the twists and turns of CSPI’s position on saturated fats and partially hydrogenated oils:

By 1988, the adverse effects of trans fats were well known. The article points out that stearic acid has no effect on blood cholesterol levels, yet CSPI continued to accuse beef tallow, which is rich in stearic acid, of “raising cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease.” As for the tropical oils, they do not need to be hydrogenated!

Blume was at it again in March 1988 with another article, “The Truth About Trans .” “Hydrogenated oils aren’t guilty as charged. . . . All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.. . . . As for processed foods, you’re better off choosing products made with hydrogenated soybean, corn, or cottonseed oil. . . ” This article was widely disseminated; Michael Jacobson provided it as a handout to members of the Maryland Legislature during hearings when the University of Maryland group tried to introduce labeling of trans fatty acids in the State.

But by 1990, CSPI could no longer defend the indefensible. In October of that year, Bonnie Liebman, CSPI Director of Nutrition, published an article “Trans in Trouble” which referred to recent studies by Dutch scientists showing that trans fats raised cholesterol. “That’s not to say trans fatty acids are artery-cloggers,” she wrote, “. . . the fats in our foods may affect cholesterol differently than those used in the Dutch experiment. . . . The Bottom Line. . . Trans, shmans. You should eat less fat. . . Don’t switch back to butter. . . use a soft tub diet margarine. . . . “

. . . The revisionism began in December 1992 when Ms. Liebman wrote: “We’ve been crying ‘foul’ for some time now, as the margarine industry has tried to convince people that eating margarine was as good for their hearts as aerobic exercise. . . . And we warned folks several years ago that trans fatty acids could be a problem. . . . That’s especially true now that we know that trans fatty acids are harmful, but we don’t know how much trans are in different foods.” Of course, CSPI had issued no such warning, but had been defending trans fats for more than five years. And there’s no apology for falsely demonizing traditional fats. “Don’t switch back from margarine to butter,” wrote Ms. Liebman, “. . . try diet or whipped margarine. . . use a liquid margarine.”

In November 1993, Bonnie Liebman coauthored an article with Margo Wootan called “The Great Trans Wreck,” which would have been in preparation well before Michael Jacobson’s infamous press conference, in which they asked, “Why do companies love hydrogenated fat if it’s so unhealthy? . . . . despite the claims on many packages, most companies switched not to vegetable oil, but to vegetable shortening. And that created a problem.”

You can read the whole sorry tale of hubris and revisionism at the Weston Price Foundation. The fruits of that revisionism can be seen in the statement above from The New York Times.

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About Marc Brazeau

Free lance cultural attaché. Writing at REALFOOD.ORG.

2 responses to “The Revisionist History of Healthier Fries”

  1. dcinfowarrior says :

    I just re-read CSPI’s “The Truth About Trans” from the March 1988 edition of Nutrition Action, and the overlying message I came away with was “we need more evidence to make a final decision on trans fats”. And a few years later, CSPI had all the evidence it needed to say trans fats were indeed harmful.

    So it turns out that all these years, CSPI’s opponents were falsely claiming “CSPI was for trans fats before they were against them” in order to discredit CSPI.

    When I first got into food activism, I believed in the lie that CSPI defended trans fats and was responsible for trans fats being in processed foods.

    So as far as I’m concerned, “CSPI was for trans fats before they were against them” is just another debunked conspiracy theory.

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