Sugar and Spite: Mark Hegsted and the Great Sugar Conspiracy

Well. This is awkward.

A big scoop blows the cover on how, back in the 1960s, some gullible Harvard researchers were funded by the Evil Sugar Industry to make sure that fat (and not sugar) took the fall as the cause of all of America’s problems, including the cancellation of Lost in Space.

One of those aforementioned oh-so-easily-corrupted scientists was none  other than Mark Hegsted, the mastermind behind the McGovern’s Dietary Goals (okay, the mastermind behind the Machiavegiann, Nick Mottern, who actually wrote the 1977 Dietary Goals¹), and, as we all know by now, this set the whole nation down the path to mainlining sugar whilst shunning perfectly good food like pork ribs.

So the scene is this:  Mark Hegsted (and his co-authors, McGandy and Stare) are sitting around their labs at Harvard, minding their own beeswax, fillin’ up test tubes, and lookin’ through microscopes.  Y’know, doin’ science.  Along comes Evil Sugar, waving big fat stacks of green under their noses.  Suddenly, Hegsted and company are payola zombies, mindlessly extolling the virtues of sucrose.

sugar-zombie

Sigh.

One of the reasons I love my life is I get to teach a class called “Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society” to a bunch of bright-eyed, smart, and exceptionally polite undergraduates at North Carolina State University.  Last week we did an activity to help them get a feel for the ways in which science is a social process.  One of the things we talked about were “interests,” including funding,  but we also discussed the fact that “follow the money” is almost always an inadequate explanation for how and what knowledge gets created in science.  My students figured out pretty quickly that scientists have multiple interests, biases, concerns, and limitations–and that these all compete for a place in the process of transforming bits of reality into the “facts” that are the outcomes of scientific knowledge production.

“Evil Sugar Corrupts Scientists” is an attention-grabbing headline, but the historical picture is a bit muddier.

Inconvenient historical moment part 1:  Let’s start with the fact that in 1965, Hegsted, McGandy, and Stare (and a nutrition instructor named Myers) published a paper entitled, “Quantitative Effects of Dietary Fat on Serum Cholesterol in Man.”²  In this article, the researchers–who used fats and oils supplied by Proctor & Gamble and milk and ice cream supplied by the Hood Milk Company–developed something that would come to be known as the Hegsted equation, which predicts the relationship between fats in the diet and serum cholesterol.  That they tested these fats and oils by incorporating them into “waffles, muffins, cakes, cookies, pie crust, biscuits, salad dressings, and spreads for bread” was beside the point; their focus of concern was fats in the diet and serum cholesterol. [Let me briefly remind you that part of the rationale behind their experiment was to contradict the conclusion stated by Ancel Keys a decade earlier, that dietary cholesterol does not have an effect on serum cholesterol.]

So, in 1967, when this same group of researchers (minus Myers) publishes a review entitled, “Dietary Fats, Carbohydrates, and Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease,” we already know which macronutrient they think is the most important contributor to heart disease, and we already know that they are more concerned about serum cholesterol than any other biomarker.  My guess is that the Evil Sugar Industry knew this as well, and that’s why this group of researchers was asked to write a review.  Most of the review consists of summarizing studies where dietary carbohydrate is held constant while the type of carbohydrate–sucrose, glucose, starch, etc.–was varied.  It’s not a big surprise to me, and it shouldn’t be to you, that they found, in most cases, sugar didn’t have a much different impact on total cholesterol than starches or other sugars. In a few cases, sugar/sucrose is found to increase triglycerides–and they duly note this.  This is Rhetoric of Science 101:  Determined critics can poke holes in any experimental system or rationale; those same scientists can find sound reasons to justify their own methods and thinking.   They don’t (necessarily) need funding from an involved industry to be motivated to do this.

Hegsted and company’s unsurprising conclusion is this:

“The major evidence today suggests only one avenue by which diet may affect the development and progression of atherosclerosis.  This is by influencing the levels of serum lipids, especially serum cholesterol …”

This is also a conclusion which would render the Hegsted equation central to determining what constitutes a healthy diet. How ’bout that?

They go on to add that limited evidence demonstrates a “slightly significant role for the kind and amount of dietary carbohydrate” in the regulation of serum lipids, the effects of which are “more pronounced when diets low in fat are consumed.”   From their perspective, they don’t think dietary carbohydrate is worth talking about, except in the context of a low-fat diet. And, if you read their 1965 paper, you already know that Hegsted and co. think type of fat is more important than overall amount because that’s where they said, “Dietary advice to lower the total fat intake is likely to be self-defeating.”

They end with this:

“Since diets low in fat and high in sugar are rarely taken, we conclude that the practical significance of differences in dietary carbohydrate is minimal in comparison to those related to dietary fat and cholesterol” (emphasis mine).

From their perspective, a diet low in fat does not imply a diet high in sugar. The most commonly used sugars at that time were cane and beet–complicated politics kept prices fairly high–and corn syrup had not yet achieved widespread use.

sugar-usage-in-1875-1975

They could not envision a future where sugar (as high-fructose corn syrup) would be a cheap replacement for fat. They could envision a future where vegetable oils would be a cheap replacement for saturated fat;  this, in fact, was already beginning to occur in some sectors of the food industry.

veg-oil-use-from-1977-goals

Both figures above are from the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans. Which brings us to …

Inconvenient historical moment part 2: Yes, Hegsted was the scientist who was the primary supporter of McGovern’s 1977 Goals.  That much is true.   So let’s chase that lead.  In the first edition of the 1977 Goals, Goal Number 5 said: “Reduce sugar consumption by about 40 percent to account for about 15 percent of total energy intake.”   This doesn’t sound like the work of someone in cahoots with Evil Sugar.

1st-ed-1977-goals

1st edition Dietary Goals, February 1977

But wait, there’s more!  In the second edition of the 1977 Dietary Goals (the one where Michael Pollan whines about the meat people bullying the committee into revising the “reduce meat” statement to say “reduce saturated fat”), the “decrease sugar” goal has been moved up to Goal Number 3 and says, “Reduce the consumption of refined and processed sugars by about 45 percent to account for about 10 percent of total energy intake.”

2nd edition Dietary Goals, December 1977

This was still on Hegsted’s watch.  How do we reconcile the increase in sugar restrictions with this (particular) conspiracy theory?

Aside from anachronistic analyses and inconsistencies that can’t be explained simply by pointing to a funding source, the current media spin on the Hegsted/Evil Sugar story suggests some pretty problematic assumptions:

  • Hegsted was completely neutral on the topic of fats and carbohydrates in the diet until sugar industry money came along.
  • Hegsted is a “dupe” and has no morals or backbone as a scientist.
  • The article would have (somehow) been different without sugar industry money.

My students know better.  I know this because all of the comments just above came from them when I asked them if they could think of any problems with the way the issue was being characterized in the media.  Folks feeding the media frenzy should know better too.

Blaming Big Food money for everything that is wrong with nutrition science and policy suggests it was all was just-fine-thank-you until Big Food came along and messed it up.

One of the problems with this view is that it encourages us to believe there is no such thing as ideological (or other) biases in science, just money.  So when Walter Willett calls research that contradicts his own “a pile of rubbish,” are we to assume that his belief that even the slightest bit of weight gain will cause you to die badly is the result of his being secretly funded by Jenny Craig?  After all, the “pile of rubbish” research (which suggests that maybe overweight and even obesity are not so horrible) was funded by the government.

And, in the current media framework, government funding is without bias, just ask the mustachioed man himself:

“Most contemporary researchers, including Willett, also acknowledge that publicly funded studies are preferable. ‘Ideally, all research would be publicly funded, so there would not be any conflict of interest,’ he says.”

Pointing the finger at Big Food money to explain away the problems in nutrition science and policy posits a particularly wild assumption:  government funding = no conflict of interest. But, as Marion Nestle’s favorite diversionary tactic, it does work to steer the conversation away from how the federal government funded plenty of its own reviews that emphasized fat and dismissed the involvement of sugar in the development of heart disease.  Nestle worked on one herself.³

Blaming the involvement of Big Food money for flaws in the scientific process is the same as blaming Big Food for obesity.  They are both simply indirect ways of blaming individuals for their bad behavior:  When Evil Sugar waved that bag of money under Hegsted’s nose, he didn’t have to take it, now did he?

Should anyone think I’ve gone off the deep end–I did just finish my written exams, so this is a distinct possibility–I’m not defending the sugar industry.  I am, however, defending the reputation of Mark Hegsted.

Why is it is that, on the one hand, we insist on characterizing nutrition science as unquestionably sound and definitive and nutrition scientists as inherently neutral and objective, and on the other hand, we assume that nutrition scientists will sell every bit of their scientific integrity to the highest bidder at the drop of a bundle of cash and create fishy science–which no one finds the least bit fishy until we hear about this transaction?

If we are willing to accept a more nuanced view, we might consider this:

Government is as “interested” in particular outcomes from science as is any corporation. They provide support for preferred views in terms of funding as well as other resources that corporations don’t necessarily have, such as public platforms, training, positions of authority, and access to important information or policymakers. Government funders back nutrition scientists who reliably produce results they like–but that’s a conversation Marion Nestle doesn’t want to have.

For their part, scientists are human and biased in ways that can’t always be accounted for–and that might be more powerful than funding.  Nutrition science, in particular, is full of a priori reasoning and lousy methodology propped up only by time and reputation–but that’s a conversation Walter Willett doesn’t want to have.

The field of nutrition science is massively overrun with weak associations, contradictory results, and experiments that incorporate preconceived notions about the relationships between food and health into the methods used to test those relationships.  Instead of positioning Hegsted and his fellow investigators as dupes of Evil Sugar who then pulled the strings that poisoned America, we might ask why Willett and Nestle want to make sure that problems in nutrition science and policy are framed by a narrative that excludes their part in them.

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  1. Actually, according to Nick Mottern himself, he’s not a vegetarian.
  2. If you would like a copy of this article–or any other article I refer to in this post–for your personal use as a nutrition researcher, let me know.
  3. Hegsted’s work definitely influenced this document–in the form of the Hegsted equation which is reprinted therein.  His sugar review is nowhere to be found.

The slick “new” Dietary Guidelines

Because never changing the recommendations means never having to say you’re sorry for 35 years of crappy advice, the 2015 (really 2016, but who’s counting?) Dietary Guidelines repeat the same old-same old “whole grains, fruitsandvegetables, low-fat/fat-free dairy, fish, nuts, and (if you must) lean meat” guidance from years past. Only difference: The new Guidelines are now oozing with vegetable oil.

In the list of recommended foods to include in “a healthy eating pattern,” “oils” now have their own category.
Oil its own food group
For the most part, we are talking Big Oil: canola, corn, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Oils that have been chemically extracted, de-gummed, bleached, and deodorized (y’know, stuff you do to dirty diapers). And good luck finding them at your local farmers market.

Big Oil is big business for the U.S. agricultural economy and for the nutrition science academic industry. Alice Lichtenstein, of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, has found more creative ways to feed all kinds of oil to hamsters, rats, and people than probably anybody on earth. Corn, canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, margarine and shortening, even rice bran oil–you name the oily food substance and Alice Slicktenstein has built her career on getting funding for studying it. Most of her work is done at–and funded through–the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, which is supported by money from, you guessed it, the USDA.  Her research is also supported by numerous grants from the NIH branch of HHS. However, this has nothing to do with the shiny new prominence of oily stuff in the USDA’s and HHS’s new Dietary Guidelines.

To be sure, oil oil everywhere is not the only thing slick about the new Guidelines. The language is pretty slippery too. There’s been a lot of cheering from the press about the “new” direction of the Guidelines, and indeed, some of the things being reported are actually in the Guidelines: The Guidelines have gotten rid of the ridiculous (and possibly dangerous) “1/2 teaspoon of salt a day” limits on sodium for some subpopulations–although the no-more-than 2300 mg (yes, a Whole Teaspoon!) limit should still be–wait for it–taken with a grain of salt.

Despite all arguments otherwise, nutrition–the politics and the science of it–is complicated. In a number of cases, trying to make the ugly stepsister foot of a “consistent public health message” squeeze into the glass slipper of inadequate and contradictory science has the Guidelines talking out of both sides of its oleaginous mouth. Here’s a closer look at what is going on:

1. Limits on cholesterol are gone.
Eh. Sorta kinda not really. It would appropriate to say “numerical” limits on cholesterol are gone, but the language of the DGA is still pretty limiting. As in:

“individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible”

What’s fun about this is that the Vegamanics are celebrating this as “cholesterol still sucks” while the SatFat Redeemers are all about “Eat them eggs, y’all.” They’re both right.  Or wrong.  Hey, this is nutrition! You don’t really expect a straight answer now, do you?

2. Red meat gets a pass.

It’s true that [lean] meat has not disappeared altogether, and that language about a “sustainable diet” (whatever that means) is not in the Guidelines. At the same time, the Guidelines recommend “lower intakes of meats, including processed meats,” lumping them in the same category as sugar-sweetened food and refined grains. So like the cholesterol issue above, this is getting played as “Evil meat lobby wins” on one side of the debate, and “Meat justice prevails” on the other.

The meat industry is happy to proclaim its support the Guidelines–as long as its product is still in them. If I were the meat folks though, I’d be working to shut the whole process down. If meat is still in the Guidelines, it is not for lack of 35 years of trying to get it out.

3. Limits on fat are gone.
Nope. Limits on “fat” are still there. If you’ve been hearing rumors that we are at the end of the “low-fat” era, and you thought that meant that the Guidelines were going to give the green light to fats–natural fats, fats that you could find at your local farmers market–you would be sadly, profoundly mistaken.

Just like all squares are rectangles, but only some rectangles are squares, all oils are fats, but only some fats are oils. The new Guidelines have been credited with saying, “Hey we’re okay with rectangles” but they are only okay with those rectangles that are squares.  You can eat fat, but only if it’s oil.

Evil fats

So: Fat–as in “saturated fat”– is still evil. But lower limits on “oil” are eased–with the exception of a few oils that the DGA folks still don’t like because their fatty acids are mostly saturated. Lower limits on oils in the diet have shifted from no less than 20% of calories to no less than 25%. But make no mistake: The upper limit on dietary “oil” as a macronutrient remains at 35% of calories, as it has been since 2005. Only by keeping limits on “oil” low can we manage to cram in the Guidelines’ requisite 45%-65% of calories of carbohydrate into our diets and still have room for protein.

In other words, the USDA hasn’t discarded the “low-fat” diet. They’ve discarded the “low oil” diet and actually, not even that. Now you are allowed a whopping 27 grams (about 5 teaspoons) of highly processed and refined, probably not local or within your foodshed, oily oil. Cheers!crisco oil
4. The DGA limits sugar intake.
Nope. It limits “added sugar” intake. That means that a bottle of orange juice, which “naturally” has as much sugar as a bottle of soda, is “good,” while soda is “bad.” Yeah yeah yeah. I hear you out there: “But but but. Orange juice has Vitamin C.” So add some Vitamin C to soda–same difference. Puh-leeze. Sugar is sugar. (I’ll save my “starch is sugar too” rant for another day.)

And all this talk about how Americans “typically exceed” recommendations for added sugar intake? Go look through the past 35 years of Dietary Guidelines. This is the first time ever that there has been an official numerical limit on sugar in any form–added or otherwise. I’m not sure how we could “exceed” something that wasn’t defined in the first place. However, the “Americans don’t follow the Guidelines” story is the best way to avoid confronting the fact that the Guidelines have not worked as intended. USDA/HHS can pretend that all would have been well if those fat stupid Americans had just done the stuff they were (actually not) told to do! Secretary Burwell suggested at the hearings in October that without the Guidelines the rapid rise in obesity rates might have been even rapider …

“We are on the wrong trajectory, but would the trajectory have been worse?”

… though it is hard to see how.  Fat lazy Americans can only cram so many Double Whoppers with Cheese down their gullets at a time, and besides Netflix wasn’t even invented until, like, 1997.

For a bit of perspective, although the 10% cap on “added sugars” is being hailed as some nutrition revolution, the USDA says Americans typically consume 13% of their calories from “added sugars” now. The radical new cap on “added sugars” heralds a (potential) whopping 3% decline in their consumption.  To be replaced by “naturally occurring sugars”? Or possibly more artificial sweeteners? Maybe, beer?

One thing is true about the Guidelines, though. Pretty much everyone hates them. Doesn’t matter where on the nutrition dogma spectrum you look–Marion Nestle or Nina Teicholz–everyone’s complaining.

I don’t like them either, but for reasons I don’t hear about in the press:

“All segments of society—individuals, families, communities, businesses and industries, organizations, governments, and others—can and should “align with the Dietary Guidelines.”

What this means:  The Guidelines have not worked as intended in the past and haven’t changed significantly in this edition, but this isn’t because the whole idea of having a single dietary prescription that will reduce risk of virtually every chronic disease in all Americans no matter their race, gender, age, genetics, lifestyle, etc. etc. etc. is patently ludicrous.  The Guidelines haven’t worked because we haven’t “aligned with” them.

As some snarky person once said, this is all about enforcing your right to eat what the folks behind the Guidelines have determined is good for you. 

“Aligning with the Dietary Guidelines by taking these actions is powerful because it can help change social norms and values and ultimately support a new prevention and healthy lifestyle paradigm that will benefit the U.S. population today as well as future generations.”

What this means:  Making certain behaviors the “norm” through public health dictum is a tried-and-true way for privileged classes to impose their values on the less-privileged.  “Aligning with” the Guidelines will help make eating (and exercising) like rich white people the morally superior choice for everyone.

To paraphrase how one brainless “expert” on public consumption put it many years ago, “Let them eat kale!”

For the rest of us, well, Marion Nestle is right when she says that the Guidelines are a “win” for the processed food industries.  She should know.  She was managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s  Report on Nutrition and Health, which said that processed food created to fit the prevailing definition of “healthy” is exactly what the public needs:

“Food manufacturers can contribute to improving the availability of palatable, easily prepared food products that will help people to follow the [low-fat, high-carbohydrate] dietary principles outlined here.”

The 2015-20120 Dietary Guidelines continue this line of reasoning:

“During the past few decades, food products and menus have notably evolved in response to consumer demands and public health concerns. The food and beverage and food service sectors and settings have a unique opportunity to continue to evolve and better align with the Dietary Guidelines.”

Which means that there is one group that always LUVS the Dietary Guidelines. As Food Navigator-USA puts it:

“The 2015 Guidelines released Jan. 7 create a marketing opportunity for savvy manufacturers and industry stakeholders to promote their products through educational materials that help consumers better understand how to meet the report’s recommendations.”

The Dietary Guidelines have been helping sell “healthy food” to consumers since 1980, just as “healthy food” manufacturers have been helping sell the Guidelines to consumers.  But “healthy food” doesn’t always lead to “healthy people.”  Moronically enough, the new Guidelines recognize that calls for “healthy processed food” might end badly (flashback to CSPI campaigning to add trans fats to food):

“In [developing and reformulating “healthy” products], care should be taken to assess any potential unintended consequences so that as changes are made to better align with the Dietary Guidelines, undesirable changes are not introduced.”

That means when the onslaught of oily, whole-grain, artificially sweetened and flavored food products fails to improve the health of Americans or (heaven forfend!) makes things worse, we know who to blame.

We can blame the American public for not following the Guidelines.  We can blame policymakers for not enforcing them.  And we can blame food manufacturers for introducing “undesirable changes” into the food supply.  But we can’t blame the Guidelines.

They’re too slick for that.

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PS.  I do plan on continuing the conversation started by Jennifer Calihan’s guest post “Low Fat, High Maintenance:  How money buys lean and healthy–plus an alternative path to both.”  If you haven’t read it already, you should (and the comments–good stuff there too). But, I just gotta get a couple of Dietary Guidelines rants out of my system.

As the Calories Churn (Episode 3): The Blame Game

In the previous episode of As the Calories Churn, we explored the differences in food supply/consumption between America in 1970 and America in 2010.

We learned that there were some significant changes in those 40 years. We saw dramatic increases in vegetable oils, grain products, and poultry—the things that the 1977 Dietary Goals and the 1980 Dietary Guidelines told us to increase. We saw decreases in red meat, eggs, butter, and full-fat milk—things that our national dietary recommendations told us to decrease. Mysteriously, what didn’t seem to increase much—or at all—were SoFAS (meaning “Solid Fats and Added Sugars”) which, as far as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are concerned, are the primary culprits behind our current health crisis. (“Solid Fats” are a linguistic sleight-of-hand that lumps saturated fat from natural animal sources in with processed partially-hydrogenated vegetables oils and margarines that contain transfats; SoFAS takes the trick a step further, by being not only a dreadful acronym in terms of implying that poor health is caused by sitting on our “sofas,” but by creating an umbrella term for foods that have little in common in terms of structure, biological function or nutrition.)

Around the late 70s or early 80s, there were sudden and rapid changes in America’s food supply and food choices and similar sudden and rapid changes in our health. How these two phenomena are related remains a matter of debate. It doesn’t matter if you’re Marion Nestle and you think the problem is calories or if you’re Gary Taubes and you think the problem is carbohydrate—both of those things increased in our food supply. (Whether or not the problem is fat is an open debate; food availability data points to an increase in added fats and oil, the majority of which are, ironically enough, the “healthy” monounsaturated kind; consumption data points to a leveling off of overall fat intake and a decrease in saturated fat—not a discrepancy I can solve here.) What seems to continue to mystify people is why this changed occurred so rapidly at this specific point in our food and health history.

Personally responsible or helplessly victimized?

At one time, it was commonly thought that obesity was a matter of personal responsibility and that our collective sense of willpower took a nosedive in the 80s, but nobody could ever explain quite why. (Perhaps a giant funk swept over the nation after The Muppet Show got cancelled, and we all collectively decided to console ourselves with Little Debbie Snack Cakes and Nickelodeon?) But because this approach is essentially industry-friendly (Hey, says Big Food, we just make the stuff!) and because no one has any explanation for why nearly three-quarters of our population decided to become fat lazy gluttons all at once (my Muppet Show theory notwithstanding) or for the increase of obesity among preschool children (clearly not affected by the Muppet Show’s cancellation), public health pundits and media-appointed experts have decided that obesity is no longer a matter of personal responsibility. Instead the problem is our “obesogenic environment,” created by the Big Bad Fast Processed Fatty Salty Sugary Food Industry.

Even though it is usually understood that a balance between supply and demand creates what happens in the marketplace, Michael Pollan has argued that it is the food industry’s creation of cheap, highly-processed, nutritionally-bogus food that has caused the rapid rise in obesity. If you are a fan of Pollanomics, it seems obvious that food industry—on a whim?—made a bunch of cheap tasty food, laden with fatsugarsalt, hoping that Americans would come along and eat it. And whaddaya know? They did! Sort of like a Field of Dreams only with Taco-flavored Doritos.

As a result, obesity has become a major public health problem.

Just like it was in 1952.

Helen Lee in thought-provoking article, The Making of the Obesity Epidemic (it is even longer than one of my blog posts, but well worth the time) describes how our obesity problem looked then:

“It is clear that weight control is a major public health problem,” Dr. Lester Breslow, a leading researcher, warned at the annual meeting of the western branch of the American Public Health Association (APHA).
 At the national meeting of the APHA later that year, experts called obesity “America’s No. 1 health problem.”

The year was 1952. There was exactly one McDonald’s in all of America, an entire six-pack of Coca-Cola contained fewer ounces of soda than a single Super Big Gulp today, and less than 10 percent of the population was obese.

In the three decades that followed, the number of McDonald’s restaurants would rise to nearly 8,000 in 32 countries around the world,
sales of soda pop and junk food would explode — and yet, against the fears and predictions of public health experts, obesity in the United States hardly budged. The adult obesity rate was 13.4 percent in 1960. In 1980, it was 15 percent. If fast food was making us fatter, it wasn’t by very much.

Then, somewhat inexplicably, obesity took off.”

It is this “somewhat inexplicably” that has me awake at night gnashing my teeth.

And what is Government going to do about it?

I wonder how “inexplicable” it would be to Ms. Lee had she put these two things together:

(In case certain peoples have trouble with this concept, I’ll type this very slowly and loudly: I’m not implying that the Dietary Guidelines “caused” the rise in obesity; I am merely illustrating a temporal relationship of interest to me, and perhaps to a few billion other folks. I am also not implying that a particular change in diet “caused” the rise in obesity. My focus is on the widespread and encompassing effects that may have resulted from creating one official definition of “healthy food choices to prevent chronic disease” for the entire population.)

Right now we are hearing calls from every corner for the government to create or reform policies that will reign in industry and “slim down the nation.” Because we’d never tried that before, right?

When smoking was seen as a threat to the health of Americans, the government issued a definitive report outlining the science that found a connection between smoking and risk of chronic disease. Although there are still conspiracy theorists that believe that this has all been a Big Plot to foil the poor widdle tobacco companies, in general, the science was fairly straightforward. Cigarette smoking—amount and duration—is relatively easy to measure, and the associations between smoking and both disease and increased mortality were compelling and large enough that it was difficult to attribute them to methodological flaws.

Notice that Americans didn’t wait around for the tobacco industry to get slapped upside the head by the FDA’s David Kessler in the 1990s. Tobacco use plateaued in the 1950s as scientists began to publicize reports linking smoking and cancer. The decline in smoking in America began in earnest with the release of Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General in 1964. A public health campaign followed that shifted social norms away from considering smoking as an acceptable behavior, and smoking saw its biggest declines before litigation and sanctions against Big Tobacco  happened in the 1990s.

Been there, done that, failed miserably.

In a similar fashion, the 1977 Dietary Goals were the culmination of concerns about obesity that had begun decades before, joined by concerns about heart disease voiced by a vocal minority of scientists led by Ancel Keys. Declines in red meat, butter, whole milk and egg consumption had already begun in response to fears about cholesterol and saturated fat that originated with Keys and the American Heart Association—which used fear of fat and the heart attacks they supposedly caused as a fundraising tactic, especially among businessmen and health professionals, whom they portrayed as especially susceptible to this disease of “successful civilization and high living.”  The escalation of these fears—and declines in intake of animal foods portrayed as especially dangerous—picked up momentum when Senator George McGovern and his Select Senate Committee created the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans. It was thought that, just as we had “tackled” smoking, we could create a document advising Americans on healthy food choices and compliance would follow. But issue was a lot less straightforward.

To begin with, when smoking was at its peak, only around 40% of the population smoked. On the other hand, we expect that approximately 100% of the population eats.

In addition, the anti-smoking campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s built on a long tradition of public health messages—originating with the Temperance movement—that associated smoking with dirty habits, loose living, and moral decay. It was going to be much harder to fully convince Americans that traditional foods typically associated with robust good health, foods that the US government thought were so nutritionally important that in the recent past they had been “saved” for the troops, were now suspect and to be avoided.

Where the American public had once been told to save “wheat, meat, and fats” for the soldiers, they now had to be convinced to separate the “wheat” from the “meat and fats” and believe that one was okay and the others were not.

To do this, public health leaders and policy makers turned to science, hoping to use it just as it had been used in anti-smoking arguments. Frankly, however, nutrition science just wasn’t up to the task. Linking nutrition to chronic disease was a field of study that would be in its infancy after it grew up a bit; in 1977, it was barely embryonic. There was little definitive data to support the notion that saturated fat from whole animal foods was actually a health risk; even experts who thought that the theory that saturated fat might be linked to heart disease had merit didn’t think there was enough evidence to call for dramatic changes in American’s eating habits.

The scientists who were intent on waving the “fear of fat” flag had to rely on observational studies of populations (considered then and now to be the weakest form of evidence), in order to attempt to prove that heart disease was related to intake of saturated fat (upon closer examination, these studies did not even do that).

Nutrition epidemiology is a soft science, so soft that it is not difficult to shape it into whatever conclusions the Consistent Public Health Message requires. In large-scale observational studies, dietary habits are difficult to measure and the results of Food Frequency Questionnaires are often more a product of wishful thinking than of reality. Furthermore, the size of associations in nutrition epidemiological studies is typically small—an order of magnitude smaller than those found for smoking and risk of chronic disease.

But nutrition epidemiology had proved its utility in convincing the public of the benefits of dietary change in the 70s and since then has become the primary tool—and the biggest funding stream (this is hardly coincidental)—for cementing in place the Consistent Public Health Message to reduce saturated fat and increase grains and cereals.

There is no doubt that the dramatic dietary change that the federal government was recommending was going to require some changes from the food industry, and they appear to have responded to the increased demands for low-fat,whole grain products with enthusiasm. Public health recommendations and the food fears they engendered are (as my friend James Woodward puts it) “a mechanism for encouraging consumers to make healthy eating decisions, with the ultimate goal of improving health outcomes.” Experts like Kelly Brownell and Marion Nestle decry the tactics used by the food industry of taking food components thought to be “bad” out of products while adding in components thought to be “good,” but it was federal dietary recommendations focusing above all else on avoiding saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt that led the way for such products to be marketed as “healthy” and to become acceptable to a confused, busy, and anxious public. The result was a decrease in demand for red meat, butter, whole milk and egg, and an increase in demand for low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol, and “whole” grain products. Minimally-processed animal-based products were replaced by cheaply-made, highly-processed plant-based products, which food manufacturers could market as healthy because, according to our USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines, they were healthy.

The problem lies in the fact that—although these products contained less of the “unhealthy” stuff Americans were supposed to avoid—they also contained less of our most important nutrients, especially protein and fat-soluble vitamins. We were less likely to feel full and satisfied eating these products, and we were more likely to snack or binge—behaviors that were also fully endorsed by the food industry.

Between food industry marketing and the steady drumbeat of media messages explaining just how deadly red meat and eggs are (courtesy of population studies from Harvard, see above), Americans got the message. About 36% of the population believe that UFOs are real; only 25% believe that there’s no link between saturated fat and heart disease. We are more willing to believe that we’ve been visited by creatures from outer space than we are to believe that foods that humans have been eating ever since they became human have no harmful effects on health. But while industry has certainly taken advantage of our gullibility, they weren’t the ones who started those rumors, and they should not be shouldering all of the blame for the consequences.

Fixing it until it broke

Back in 1977, we were given a cure that didn’t work for diseases that we didn’t have. Then we spent billions in research dollars trying to get the glass slipper to fit the ugly stepsister’s foot. In the meantime, the food industry has done just what we would expect it to do, provide us with the foods that we think we should eat to be healthy and—when we feel deprived (because we are deprived)—with the foods we are hungry for.

We can blame industry, but as long as food manufacturers can take any mixture of vegetable oils and grain/cereals and tweak it with added fiber, vitamins, minerals, a little soy protein or maybe some chicken parts, some artificial sweeteners and salt substitutes, plus whatever other colors/preservatives/stabilizers/flavorizers they can get away with and still be able to get the right profile on the nutrition facts panel (which people do read), consumers–confused, busy, hungry–are going to be duped into believing what they are purchasing is “healthy” because–in fact–the government has deemed it so. And when these consumers are hungry later—which they are very likely to be—and they exercise their rights as consumers rather than their willpower, who should we blame then?

There is no way around it. Our dietary recommendations are at the heart of the problem they were created to try to reverse. Unlike the public health approach to smoking, we “fixed” obesity until it broke for real.