Marion Nestle Knows Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease. But I Don’t Know That.

I respect and appreciate the work of NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle, as does much of the organic food community.  I cited her in my most recent post, on genetically modified organisms.  And I often swoop in on her blog to check out her latest commentary on food issues.

But now and then Professor Nestle says something I am surprised to hear from her.

Take the following.  In her book What To Eat, Nestle says about dairy products, “[t]he calories and saturated fat are reason enough to choose lower-fat options.”  A few pages earlier, she refers to saturated fat as “the bad kind that raises the risk for heart disease.”

Marion Nestle What To Eat

Eat Whole Foods. But Skim Your Milk?

For now, let’s forget about Nestle’s comment about calories.  (I have big questions about this comment and will address them in a future post.)

Let’s chat about fat.  Nestle seems certain that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease.  But I am not sure this is the open-and-shut case that she makes it out to be.

Take the Masai, a tribe in east Africa that lives much the same way they’ve lived for the past several thousand years.  They live off of cow’s blood cow’s milk and, occasionally, the cows’ meat itself.  That’s it.  Scientists who’ve studied the Masai have found that, though this diet is shockingly high in saturated fat, their incidence of heart disease is virtually nonexistent.

OK, so the Masai may be different.  Maybe they get more exercise.  Maybe they’ve adapted to high saturated fat levels over their thousands of years of herding cattle.  And maybe the same can be said of Eskimo populations that also live primarily off of red meat (from caribou) and yet similarly show little sign of heart disease.

But the evidence from clinical trials of red-blooded Americans may not show much clearer a correlation between saturated fat and heart disease.  Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories runs through the entire history of heart disease research in the western world and leaves you with, at the very least, a big question mark over your head and, if you read the evidence the way Taubes does, a pretty solid conviction that saturated fat simply is not the problem.

So, why is Nestle so certain that saturated fat is the culprit, that she does not feel the need to qualify her remark, or even offer any reasons why we think saturated fat may cause heart disease?  Probably because it’s what the government tells us, and what nutritionists have held generally to be true for decades.

But think for a minute about whether it makes sense that a modern disease (heart disease) with little evidence of its occurrence prior to the past couple hundred years, would come from a product (whole milk) that our ancestors (at least in large parts of the world) have been drinking for millennia.

And think about whether our major shift over the past 50 years toward low-fat, skim, fat-free diets have done anything to reduce our incidence of heart disease.

I don’t have the answers any more than anyone else does.  But does it sound like any of us really have the answer?  I just am surprised that Ms. Nestle takes for doctrine the causation between saturated fat and heart disease.  At the least there are big questions to be asked, and further research to be done.

If you doubt whether these questions indeed need to be asked, I have a question for you: Have you at least read Taubes’s book?

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20 Responses to Marion Nestle Knows Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease. But I Don’t Know That.

  1. John says:

    Hi Doug,
    I’m glad I tripped over your blog on Twitter this evening. What a lot of tripe Ms. Nestle has been pumping out. The fact of the matter is that in the early 1900′s we had very low rates of heart disease. Then in the 1950′s + 60′s everything began to change: lies about milk and butter in particular, & lies about coconut oil – all of this has happened as a result of conspiracies between the heart & stroke societies, who are wrapped around the fingers of the crooked food processors. They won’t admit that coconut oil with an 82% saturated fat, is actually a mid-chain fat which highly utilizable in weight loss, and also has antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties.

    So I think Ms Nestle must be sponsored by the food manufacturing companies :-)

    • Doug says:

      John,

      i appreciate your sharing your thoughts and agree with much of what you say on your home page.

      I did want to respond in defense of Professor Nestle, in the sense that (1) I agree with very much of what she has to say about nutrition, (2) she is very much attuned to the sorts of special-interest lobbying you mention, and rather than act as a shill for special interests she is very skeptical of them; even though I question her stance on saturated fat I can hardly imagine that she is sponsored by anyone; and (3) much of what she has to say is likely very much in line with your own dietary philosophy, though as with my own hers will certainly have some differences.

      Additionally, I am not sure that even Gary Taubes would characterize the confused state of nutritional guidance on heart disease as “lies,” but I do agree with you that confusion does indeed exist.

      Best wishes with your site, as you appear to be spreading some important questions and information about modern American diets.

      Doug

  2. This is my opinion and I have no facts to back it up, but think that maybe if people drank non-pasteurized milk and milk products we would be better able to digest them. Some years ago I joined a “raw milk” co-op. I’m not a big milk fan (to drink) but wanted to get cheese and such. The Amish were the providers. I found out there is a big controversy in this country over whether consumers should even be able to buy non-pasteurized milk. Apparently the government thinks we aren’t able to make this decision for ourselves, and censors our ability to buy raw milk pretty aggressively. In fact, while I was in the co-op, some of the Amish farmers who provided our dairy products were raided by the U.S. government.

    What I found from some of the people in the group is that their kids had dairy allergies until they were switched to raw milk. Raw milk by the way is put into sanitized canisters, however the milk itself is not heated in order to kill bacteria. The milk is left whole but handled in a sanitary manner so as not to contaminate it and spread disease. This apparently aids human digestion of the milk because the bacteria that exists in milk helps us to digest, and is largely destroyed when milk is pasteurized. If you leave it “raw”, the digestion process is actually aided by the naturally existing bacteria in the milk. At least that’s how I understood it. I suspect heating milk for pasteurization could alter the way dairy fat interacts with our bodies, as well.

    From a taste standpoint, I found the raw milk dairy products tasted much better. I bought raw cream and it whipped up in about 30 seconds flat — never saw cream whip so fast! The soft cheeses were spectacular, as was the cottage cheese. The butter was out of this world, a deep, golden yellow with a wonderfully satisfying taste, not like the bland butter you buy in supermarkets. All in all the quality of the raw dairy was way beyond any pasteurized milk I’d ever tasted. Some years back I’d developed a mild intolerance to dairy, so I thought this might work better for me and ate a whole lot of dairy while I was in the co-op (because it was GOOD!) — never experience any stomach discomfort during that time (about a year and a half).

    I believe raw milk may be the best way to avoid problems with dairy. I think the dairy industry in the U.S. has a huge hand in why the government doesn’t want to allow unpasteurized milk into the market place. It would cost those giant dairy conglomerates a lot of money to switch over from heating/pasteurizing their milk to using sanitized containers and handling the milk in a sanitary way. It’s probably easier to handle the milk any old way, then throw it all in a huge heat/pasteurizer and sanitize it. I’m pretty sure this is why only small dairy farmers provide raw milk.

    Anyway, that’s my opinion and I believe our bodies process “raw milk” and pasteurized milk differently.

    • Doug says:

      Julee,

      This is a fascinating analysis; thank you so much for contributing this. You are right on in suggesting that changes to the milk resulting from pasteurization may be causing problems in our body’s digestion of the milk. I too have no reason to believe that this is in fact happening. But it goes along with the whole idea that our bodies have developed over millions of years to digest milk the way it comes from a cow, and we’ve only had a century or so to learn to digest it in its pasteurized form. It’s tough to be certain that nothing about pasteurization changes the healthful quality of the milk for our bodies or changes the milk in ways that are unhealthy for me. We know that the pasteurization process kills off some vitamins. While this is unfortunate, it is unlikely to make a huge difference given the small amounts of vitamins we’re talking about. But this is an example of how this sort of food processing does change the product, and there simply is no way of knowing if other, perhaps more subtle, changes can contribute to dairy allergies, or changes in the way we our bodies process the milk we drink.

      We do know that pasteurization solved a major problem at the time the process was invented: people were dying from bacterial infections from raw milk, and pasteurized milk significantly reduced this problem. I suppose the question for today is whether we have other ways of dealing with the bacterial issue (i.e., the more sanitary processing and packaging conditions available given modern day technology) that makes pasteurization unnecessary today; or whether pasteurization itself creates other problems that are worse the the original problem. It’s tough to know.

      I agree with you that dairy producers likely have a lot to do with the fight against “raw” milk, and “raw” milk may well have all of the benefits you describe. I’ve actually never heard anyone talk about drinking “raw” milk before (though I know some people do it), and it’s very interesting to hear your taste preferences, and also any impact on dairy allergies you may have. (The dairy allergy question is maybe the most intriguing to me, particularly if the allergies indeed go away upon consuming “raw” milk.)

      This is an intriguing topic, and I will see if I can find out some more about it. Thanks so much for bringing it up.
      Doug

      • Hi, Doug –

        I remember pasteurization from grade school, lol! Louis Pasteur — for some reason he was a big deal when I was young. I do remember that pasteurization solved infection problems, just as I remember that health professionals learned to wash their hands before surgery, handling patients, etc., and this practice cut down on people dying from infection, as well. You’d think that would have been common sense, but it wasn’t, and people didn’t understand the connection between dirt and germs, so they had to learn it. But I’ll bet a lot of people had figured it out — it’s just that science hadn’t figured it out and proved it until then.

        For me the major point is that milk coming out of the cow isn’t contaminated. It becomes contaminated afterwards, so the question is how best to handle that situation? In my mind it would make no difference if the quality of the milk were not affected. But it does seem to be altered, and that’s why I think “raw” milk probably retains what we, as humans, need to digest it properly, and pasteurized milk must lack something (or something is significantly altered) because so many people have dairy allergies. For sure the taste is not as good.

        Sanitized canisters from which the milk is poured into smaller, sanitized, sealed canisters? Why wouldn’t this be a suitable substitute for pasteurized milk? Any reasonable thinking person can figure out in a few seconds that the milk itself is not the problem — milk coming out of a cow is in its purest state and how could it be contaminated inside the cow? It’s contaminated after it comes out, so we should be able to choose how to keep it uncontaminated, and my feeling is the best way is the way that interferes least with the milk itself.

        • Doug says:

          Julee,

          These are terrific questions. I really don’t know any more about this process but am curious to learn. It would be fascinating if we could achieve the safety benefits of pasteurization through sterile operating procedures, rather than through pasteurization itself.

          I simply can’t say. One point: I believe it is possible for milk to be infected with bacteria that are not harmful to a cow but are harmful to humans. I believe that this is one way that dangerous strains bacteria end up in our food supply; cows that are fed corn develop certain new strains of bacteria in their stomachs, that are not typically there. These E. Coli don’t necessarily hurt the cows (though some strains of bacteria certainly do; hence as you know the over-use of antibiotics in factory farm beef production); but they nonetheless hurt humans.

          Still, I doubt this is the sort of bacteria that pasteurization was developed to neutralize, since back in Pasteur’s day cows weren’t eating corn and didn’t have these bacteria. So you may very well be right, that the problem only develops after milk is taken from the cow, and that proper sterilization practices would obviate the need for pasteurization.

          Fascinating comment. I will see if I can’t dig up some more information on this, thanks so much for guiding me in a new direction with this.

          Doug

  3. John says:

    Julee, if you’re interested in the raw milk subject, have a look at a friend of mine from a while back when I was learning about organic farming, Michael Schmitt, http://www.glencoltonfarms.com and the crap he went through with raw milk.

    Here in Canada, where we have the tax-payers paying for basically free (but limited!) health care, I think the government can shove it down your gullet, the fact that you can’t consume something which they (“your” administrators!) don’t think is good for your health!

    Just wait when your Obama Care (O-bomb-a care!) is fully in place, what’ll happen.
    Oh my Gawd!
    John

    • Thanks for the info.

      I’m in favor of the health care Obama is trying to make happen, because so many U.S. citizens have no health care at all. Right now I am in that situation, as I was laid off a little over a year and a half ago, spent my own $$ on reduced payments for health care (for 18 mos.) and came to the end of that recently. This was more $$ than I paid when I was employed, but it was affordable to my husband and I. However, the price has gone up and I don’t have $600 a month to pay towards my own for health care, so I have nothing. My husband gave his up when I was laid off (he also is not working) so that we could pay for mine (the “reduced” rate), but it’s not possible for us to pay $600 a month at this time, so neither of us is insured.

      While I am pretty sure the new universal health care is not perfectly structured, it has to start somewhere. And I seriously doubt they’ll try to tell us what to eat — although if one were very paranoid I suppose that would be a fear. I don’t tend to be (paranoid) so that doesn’t worry me. I’d much rather see abortion covered as a legal medical expense than worry about whether the government will step in and tell us what not to eat.

      Which, by the way, is happening anyway. Restrictions on whether we can purchase raw milk or not, telling folks on food stamps they can no longer buy soda, what sorts of oils may be used in restaurants (in NYC), whether you can give out toys with Happy Meals, etc. Little by little the government is encroaching on our food choices, so whether it happens under the guise of universal health care or somewhere else, the trend has already started.

      My husband lived in Canada and his health care while there was pretty decent. The dental and medical care were good, although he never needed an operation or anything that would cause him to have to wait for a procedure — I’ve heard of that happening. I think regarding routine health care, you have it much better in Canada than we have it in the U.S.

    • Doug says:

      John, Thanks very much for providing additional information on raw milk. I will take a look at your friend’s site!

      Doug

  4. John says:

    Julee I’m sorry to hear about your employment status – that really sucks I’m sure. I’m currently driving transport trucks and making $17 and hour with no benefits. But I drive an hour to work and an hour home, so my car costs just wipe about $100 a week clean off what ever I make (that’s 450 – $750, depending on hours, minus $100! So if I get good hours, OK. If not, the $100 represents a big %age of my hard earned dollars.) But I am working on building a web based business,so I can throw in the towel in a year or so. I hope you can do something like that too.

    And on your remarks about governments telling us what to eat: I was really just stretching the impossible – like the Hitler/Stalin days, where the “inspector” does his occasional surprise visit, and treats us all like imbeciles . . . ! Not likely to happen, but the socialists can sure dream!

    • Doug says:

      This is an interesting dialogue, and there may indeed be a tendency, if the government pays for your medical care, for it to want greater say over what you eat and how you live. Bloomberg’s recent proposal to prevent the use of food stamps to buy soda is one example of this: he’s not proposing that no one can buy soda; he’s just proposing that people who rely on the government for food can’t use those government funds to buy soda. The more you rely on the government for these things, the more likely the government is to look to control what you put into your body.

      But, in spite of these concerns, I support Bloomberg’s proposal, and am not terribly worried these days about overly extensive government intrusion into what we do and do not eat. Raw milk is one hot-button issue in this regard, but it may have more to do with dairy industry lobbying (as Julee suggested earlier) than with any government-sponsored healthcare.

      Thanks to you both for contributing your thoughts on these issues.
      Doug

      • John says:

        Yes Doug, I hear you. Actually I think the “stamp” thing re: what you can and can’t buy, should apply. If you’re paying these people to sit around all day, no matter the cause, you want to be able at least to say, “look, you can’t sit there and waste your health away, and then get free obamacare.”

        I might point out also though, that with the medicare here in Canada there are quite a few surgical or other techniques of handling health problems which are not available. This attitude is not always the best in terms of treatments. But the real “minus” side of the equation here is you have NO choice in the matter. We aren’t able even if we CAN afford it, to pay out of our pockets. That would be classified as ‘extra-billing’ which is out-lawed; so we would head to the USA! Now wouldn’t we be better to put our own extra$ into our own system? NO! Because the way socialists see this is that those of us who pay out of pocket, get bumped to the front of the line. How insidious is that? :-)

        The capitalists say that pay out-of-pocket inserts cash into the system which can buy better techniques, or more service, hence shorter waiting lineups.

        • Doug says:

          John,

          Health care is a huge and extremely complex issue, and so I hesitate to tackle it on this blog. But a couple thoughts in response to your email:

          (1) The option to “buy” premium treatment or special procedures is indeed one plus of the American system. Even people here with very low incomes have come up with inventive ways to raise the money for a costly procedure for a loved one, and benefited from America’s lead in some medical areas, and the excellence of its care at the very highest levels.

          As you noted, speed is a plus, too: When I met some Irish nationals over the summer, and one was in misery because she’d waited over a year to have her tonsils removed, I’d never heard anything like it. When you want your tonsils removed in America, they come out the next day.

          (2) At the same time, our system leaves over 50 million people without medical care. These 50 million people do typically end up receiving medical treatment when urgently needed (at the expense of the hospitals that provide the care, or the government that pays for it), but it’s typically emergency room type care and not the preventative care that would be better for them and also less costly.

          (3) America spends way too much money on medical care (about 16% of GDP compared to what I believe is 10% or 11% in Canada; maybe you can confirm this figure for me). Maybe we are simply getting better medical care, and maybe it’s worth the added expense, but my guess is we’re not getting that much for our money’s worth in terms of higher quality. There are major problems with our system; and it’s tough to find one anywhere in the world that really stands out in terms of cost and effectiveness.

          So I hear your arguments, and I think you are making very valid points. It’s a tough issue, and I don’t pretend to know the solutions.

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issue.
          Doug

    • Thank you, John. You’re very kind. So far we are okay, but it sucks not to have health care coverage, just because of the “what ifs”. It’s a little scary because I have a couple of chronic things that are not life threatening, but should be monitored, and right now all I can afford is the medication (which thankfully at WalMart is pretty cheap). It’s really the lab work that is extremely costly. I think my doctor would cut me a break, but the labs won’t, unfortunately. And then of course I’m not as young as I once was. When I was younger I was extremely cavalier about having health coverage (I mostly didn’t, and it never seemed to matter — I really didn’t seem to need it). Plus having dental is critical and having to drop that is a bitch.

      Your situation sounds tough in its way — depending on a fluctuating hourly wage is difficult. Plus that $100 off every week is a lot of moolah.

      Nothing’s perfect, right? We do what we can.

      Best of luck to you on your web-based business. I hope it thrives and makes you very rich!

      • Doug says:

        Julee,

        I too am sorry to hear about your job. Does the recent health care legislation do anything to help? I typically feel as though the health care laws that are proposed and that do pass do not strike at the major fundamental problems with our health system. But as things get worse for people we may get closer to making the right kinds of legislation politically acceptable.

        If the recent legislation does not help, is there anything in the works that might?

        Doug

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  6. John says:

    Responding to Doug + Julee :)
    I was a dairy farmer for 25 years, and the sciences advanced as I went along. We talk in this discussion about bacteria like it were just the contaminating factor that lies on external surfaces around and about. But actually there is much more to it than that!

    As a dairy farmer, I received 2 types of counts on the milk. 1st was Bacteria most of which was gram positive, and was said to be due to lack of cleanliness (ie the milking machines, bulk tank, or pipeline. Usually what would happen is there’d be a fat build up on the inner surfaces of these devices, and bacteria had a great medium on which to grow. This would be enormously similar to the meat packing plants, when we hear of huge hygiene problems.

    The other measurement they came up with around 1975 was referred to as the “Somatic Cell Count”. Before the companies buying your milk were able to use this as a tool for grading and pricing, it was used as a tool to determine the health of a cow, and to predict up-coming illnesses before they would surface visually. But down the line they began to axe the price downward or even suspend you from shipping, until your veterinarian or equivalent would diagnose problems, and get you on the right path (probably using antibiotics, etc. ;( ).

    So in essence, “SCC” is a measure of stress or other health issues the cow can’t tell you about. But one of the things I remember is that milk with a high “SCC” was said not to keep on the shelves as long. As I remember, an SCC of 20,000 was very good. As you got up around 100,000, there was an indication of some concern. Then 300,000 or more was worth investigating. Typically though antibiotics would come into play today, without allowing for the natural healing from diseases. But in my view, that quick method may get rid of the symptoms, but rarely the cause. I think much of the SCC related issues are in fact STRESS, and that may be being caused by the kind of feeding, and/or lack of exercise. Which comes back to the benefits of grazing!

    But what concerns me most is the feed itself. I can’t conclude to any degree here, but have a hunch about Soybean meal commonly used as a protein supplement. There’s nothing scientific that I’m aware of , but in the human world there seems to be nothing good about the use of Soy for anything in food, unless it’s fermented. Corn and other types of cow feed is ensiled and therefore fermented, but the problem is more the fact that cows are high fibre beasts, and corn silage (whole plant) is about 50% grain. So as you balance feed for high production, you’re likely feeding close to 60% grain during a cow’s first 4 months of production, causing forms of stress . . . !

    • Doug says:

      John,

      Thanks so much (belatedly!) for your input. It is great to hear from someone with hands-on experience in the dairy industry. I have heard it suggested that stress indeed has an impact on the milk cows produce, and that stress is naturally higher in today’s industrialized system than it is out at pasture. Yet another reason I am scared to eat animal products that come from conventional producers. Soybeans I had not heard of as being a problem (everyone talks about corn) but I have indeed heard that cows do better on leafy greens than on corn, and so they probably would indeed do better on leaves (grass) than on soy as well! This is something I will keep in mind during further research. Thanks for raising this as yet another likely issue with today’s conventional agriculture.

      Best,
      Doug

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