Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2123rd Meeting

Speaker: Mary G. Enig, Enig Associates
Topic: “Debunking the PC Rhetoric from the Merchants of Fat”

President Spargo called the 2123rd meeting to order at 8:20 pm on November 17, 2000. The minutes of the 2122nd meeting were read and approved.

The speaker for the evening was Mary G. Enig. Her topic was “Debunking the PC Rhetoric from the Merchants of Fat”.

Ms. Enig reported that major changes have occurred in the fat distribution in the food supply in the last 100 years. Many of these changes have not reflected the best information about the roles of fats in the human diet. Low fat diets, promoted by the government and believed by many to be effective, have been found by the researchers who initially promoted them to be incorrect. Also, the natural animal and vegetable fats have been pushed out of the food supply starting about 40 years ago and replaced by partially hydrogenated vegetable fat.

When Ancel Keys of the University of Minnesota suggested these “funny fats” might be the cause of the heart disease epidemic, the industry responded that saturated fat was the culprit. This proposition quickly was accepted and we ended up chasing from the food supply all the fats that had healthful properties, that kept us from getting infectious diseases and that kept us from having all sorts of problems with satiety.

Today the greatest amount of fat in the United States diet is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The commonest ones are soybean oil and canola oil. They were unknown 100 years ago. In 1890, the number one fat in the food supply was lard. For people who do not eat pork, it was schmaltz, chicken fat. The number two fat was tallow. Butter was also an important fat. Olive, palm, peanut, and cottonseed oil also were used but in relatively minor amounts.

Lard, thought by many to be a saturated fat, is not. It is a monounsaturated fat. It is a good source of vitamin D and has excellent baking qualities. Chicken has both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat in it. Butterfat and tallow contain more saturated fats and both have very useful polyunsaturated components not found in other fats, conjugated linoleic acid and palmitoleic acid. Coconut oil can be used by the body to make monoglyceride, an anti-microbial substance. In sum, use of animal fats is down; use of vegetable fats is up. So if disease frequencies are up in that period, vegetable fats may be suspected. The diseases in which fats are implicated are heart disease, cancer, diabetes, asthma, and obesity.

There was a substantial increase in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from about 1910 to about 1990. During that period, heart disease and asthma also increased substantially. Early in the 20th century, 35 to 50% of American diets were fat, but people were not obese. Much of that fat was saturated. In the 1960's, the unsaturated fats began to be recommended because they lower blood cholesterol. Unsaturated fats reduce the integrity of membranes, and cholesterol goes to the membranes. After a short-term reduction, the level of cholesterol in the blood goes up again. In the 1980's it was realized that the polyunsaturates are unstable. The response of the industry was to raise the monounsaturates. This is what led to the use of canola oil, since there was not enough olive oil to fill this demand. These oils would provide omega three fatty acids, but most of it is partially hydrogenated and that destroys the omega three fatty acids.

Pregnant women who eat a lot of trans-fatty acids produce babies with low birth weight and produce breast milk with less cream in it. Trans-fatty acids in breast milk are associated with decreased visual acuity until age 14 months. Pesticides are more noxious to people who have more trans-fatty acids in their diets because they interfere with the process by which enzymes clean these substances from the system. Trans-fatty acids also interfere with the body's processing of insulin, so they increase the ill effects of diabetes, and lower testosterone levels have been found in animals with high levels of trans-fatty acids.

Many popular doughnuts have about 35% trans-fatty acids in their fat. A typical McDonald's meal, before 1982, had 2-2.5 grams of trans-fatty acids. After that the Center for Science in the Public Interest badgered McDonald's, and other fast food outlets, into changing to partially hydrogenated vegetable fat, and the level of trans-fatty acids is now about 19 grams. Even Italian restaurants now use canola oil instead of olive oil. About 80% of the oil used in the U.S. is soybean oil, and about 70% of all fat is partially hydrogenated.

What's the alternative? Low fat is no good. Low fat leads to people eating a lot of the wrong things because they do not get the normal satiety that results from eating fat. Saturated fatty acids raise high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. They are the only kind of fat that lowers low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Lipoprotein [a], which is much more noxious than low-density lipoprotein, can be removed by the body if there is enough saturated fat in the diet.

Saturates do not interfere with insulin binding or with enzyme functions. Trans-fatty acids do. Butter and coconut oil are good sources of saturated fat. Omega-9 fatty acid is found in olive oil, non-hydrogenated canola oil, lard and tallow, and fair amounts of it in olive oil, butter, and chicken fat. It is also found in the vegetable oils, although some of the new plant hybrids used to produce oil should be monitored because experience with them is limited.

We are in a strange situation where the recommendations regarding dietary fat that are considered politically correct are in substantial disagreement with the indications from research.

Ms. Enig kindly answered questions from the floor. President Spargo thanked Ms. Enig for the Society. The President made the announcements about the next meeting, parking, and refreshments, and adjourned the 2122nd meeting to the social hour at 9:35 p.m.

Attendance: 31
Temperature: 5°C
Weather: clear, breezy

Respectfully submitted,
Ron Hietala
Former President

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