September 30

The columnist who mistook his myth for a fact

8  comments

John Tierney, in his column in today’s New York Times, writes about the proposed ban on trans fats in restaurants in New York City. Tierney takes New York’s health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, to task for his jihad against restaurants in the Big Apple cooking with trans fats and accuses him of wanting to turn the city into the Big Nanny. As he gets wound up in his argument against Frieden’s actions, Tierney posits that forcing restaurants to stop using trans fats could actually cause harm in the long run.
How?
Horror of horrors, by causing restaurants to return to using saturated fats.

For all the rhetoric against trans fats, they’re not worse for you than the old-fashioned saturated fats in lard and butter and various cooking oils. As Gina Kolata reported in The Times last year, the scientific consensus from the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, and the Food and Drug Administration is that trans fats are on a par with saturated fats.

Tierney falls into the trap of believing that saturated fats are harmful. He accepts what is at best a frail hypothesis as an absolute fact.
He correctly points out that

Food companies and restaurants voluntarily switched to trans fats to appease consumers and food activists worried about saturated fats. Now that those same activists have made trans fat the new bogeyman, restaurant chains and food companies are again looking to appeal to their customers with healthier alternatives…

But worries that

if New York arbitrarily imposed a deadline, the simplest way to comply would be to go back to using saturated fats. The food wouldn’t be any healthier, but it would sound more virtuous after the grandstanding by Bloomberg and his health commissioner about their heroic reduction of trans fats.

Since Tierney, like so many others, has uncritically accepted the notion that saturated fats are dangerous. He believes that anyone truly bent on improving the health of the public shouldn’t worry about trans fats, but should instead look to banning saturated fats because

saturated fats are a more logical problem to address than trans fats because we consume a lot more of them.

Although I believe trans fats are far from harmless, I agree with Tierney that the health commissioner is more than a little over reaching on this. Had it not been for the misguided efforts of other food police types, we wouldn’t have the trans fat problem today. We would still be using saturated fat and our food would still taste just as good as it always has.
It’s almost impossible to rush to action without all the facts in place without getting a real slap in the face from the law of unintended consequences, which is precisely what has happened with the trans fat debacle.
My concern comes from the realization that if a regular columnist for the New York Times uncritically accepts the notion that saturated fats are bad (instead of the unproven hypothesis that it is) and states it as fact, what hope is there that the great unwashed masses will ever see the light?


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  1. Tierney is a Bushco conservative, in other words, he is a corporate apologist. Aside from his specious reasoning that saturated fats would be as bad as trans fats, read his article in that light.
    Hi Gary–
    Hmmm, typically what I’ve noticed is that there appears to be a bias in favor of saturated fats and of meat in general on the part of political conservatives and a tendency toward a more vegetarian diet in political liberals.
    I don’t know if Tierney in this case is acting more as a corporate apologist or an anti-regulator. I suspect the latter. My worry, however, is his blithe acceptance of the saturated-fat-is-bad-for-you hypothesis as fact.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  2. Yes, it boggles the mind that humans are still alive and thriving considering all the fat that our ancestors ate. We should have went extinct centuries ago.
    Hi Kathy–
    It does indeed boggle the mind.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  3. Sir ye make like some of this.
    http://www.sirc.org/publik/food_and_eating_12.html
    Some of it is gibberish but you’d expect that as he’s from Yorkshire and i should know as i’m too !
    Do you know Marvin Harris work ? If not i think both yee and the Mrs would adore Our Kind by Harris..really wonderful
    Hi Simon–
    You’re correct about the link: some of it is informative, the rest gibberish.
    I have read a number of Marvin Harris’s books including Our Kind. He is one of us.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  4. Most reporters wouldn’t have the knowledge to interpret a scientific study, so they really have no choice but to fall back on the pronouncements of the organizations that are supposed to be authorities on these matters. I don’t know if this fellow is any different or not. The saddest part is that the major health organizations cannot give up their cherished hypotheses because it would seriously undermine their authority in the eyes of the public. I don’t think the American people want fickle doctors. That there is no evidence that saturated fat has any part in the pathogenesis of heart disease is actually kind of obvious given the consistent failure of invention trials to prove saturated fats guilt. Such a seemingly simple oversight makes one have to question and double check EVERY SINGLE pronouncement that they have ever made: fat causes heart disease, carbs are the bestest thing ever, protein causes kidney damage, salt gives you hypertension, hypertension causes heart disease, trans fats are bad, etc. etc. etc. You name it, you can’t really trust it now IMO. This is very annoying even for people that can interpret scientific studies because there just isn’t enough time in the day to double check all the ADA/AHA/NHLBI’s ect. shoddy work. When the truth is finally set free, I think all this deserves to be a MAJOR scandal. The downfall of our hallowed health “authorities” should, IMO, be on par with the downfall of communism (maybe I’m going a little far, but still). I don’t even want to imagine what it will be like for the general public. Without their ability to verify facts for themselves, how can they ever trust anyone?
    Hi Neal–
    You’re right on point. I actually heard a prominent physician say after the salt-causes-hypertension theory had been debunked, We can’t tell people we were wrong about this because then they won’t believe us in the future. Which, of course, begs the question, if you’re telling them the wrong things why should they believe you.
    It is a real scandal.
    Best–
    MRE

  5. That is one reason why the great unwashed masses are not learning the truth. The media is very liberal, and the idea that Atkins’ (or Ted Nugent’s, for that matter) way of eating could possibly be healthy is unfathomable to them. Eating animals is bad, and saturated fat is evil incarnate.
    Funny, though, that conservatives are more likely to be religious, and do not embrace evolutionary facts about animal domestication.
    Hi Karen–
    Strange, indeed. You wouldn’t think there would be a political bias in the idea of food choice, but there clearly is. Most conservatives tend to be meat eaters whereas most liberals lean in a vegetarian direction.
    Best–
    MRE

  6. I agree with the last paragraph.
    It’s just another example of the “Big Lie” technique. People will believe a big lie over a little lie, and if repeated often enough, they will eventually believe that it’s true.
    This is why I’ll never believe that “low-carb” will be accepted by the mainstream. I don’t care how many research studies come out proving what has already been proven by anthropologists and biochemists (that man developed for millions of years on a high-meat and/or all-meat diet). The idea that “saturated fat is bad” has been so ingrained in the psyche of the culture that no amount of truth will be able to overcome the Big Lie.
    Hi Rob–
    Let’s not give up hope. You can’t just prove the low-carb diet is better; you’ve got to overwhelm the opposition with data, which is starting to happen. I think we’ll see a major change within the next decade.
    Keeping my fingers crossed.
    MRE

  7. I have to take issue with one thing:
    Had it not been for the misguided efforts of other food police types, we wouldn’t have the trans fat problem today. We would still be using saturated fat and our food would still taste just as good as it always has.
    This is only partially true…no pun intended! Partially hydrogenated oils are cheaper than using real animal lard or tropical oils. This is one of the reasons food processors started using them. And the soybean processing lobby spent millions lobbying the FDA back in the 60s-70s, this has been documented by Mary Enig. They had to con the health police into believing they were safe, which they did. But it is true that the Framingham study misinterpretations (as you document so well) had already started a demagoguery against saturated fat, so there was a search for an “alternative.”
    Hi David–
    Proctor & Gamble came up with Crisco in 1911 and advertised it as a safe, tastier alternative to the animal fats in use at the time. It’s use (along with that of other trans fats) exploded when the anti-saturated fat folks demanded an alternative.
    Now these same anti-saturated fat pinheads are going after the trans fats that they, themselves, were in great measure responsible for afflicting us with.
    Best–
    MRE

  8. The old adage, Everything in moderation, is as true as ever. Eat a “balanced” diet and you’ll live as long as your supposed to. (Unless you get hit by a truck).
    Oat bran, margarine, low-fat
    – all these things were supposed to prolong your life. Oops, no they don’t. Sorry. The same will hold for whatever replaces trans-fat. The Food Nazis will go after that as well. They don’t want you to eat anything, apparently. It’s like, plastic or paper, neither is the answer from the doom and gloomers. That’s why I tune out all these attempts to micromanage my life. Do the same and you’ll be much happier.

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