by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Fats-and-oils

Sep 12 2016

Sugar industry funding of research, 1967 style (with many lessons for today)

I wrote a commentary for a study published this morning in JAMA Internal Medicine: “Food industry funding of nutrition research: The relevance of history for current debates.”

The study, by UCSF investigators Cristin Kearns, Laura Schmidt and Stanton Glantz, is based on their archival research.  They found documentary evidence of shocking manipulation by the sugar industry of a Harvard review of studies on dietary factors and heart disease published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967.

Kearns et al. discovered that the sugar industry trade association paid investigators at Harvard an impressive amount of money ($48,000 in today’s dollars) to produce research demonstrating that saturated fat—not sugar—raises the risk of heart disease.

In my commentary, I reproduced a figure from the sugar-funded 1967 reviews.  This summarizes the epidemiology showing that both sugar and saturated fat intake were then indistinguishably associated with increased mortality in 14 countries.

Nevertheless, the reviews exonerated sugars and blamed saturated fat.

Yes, I know that association does not necessarily mean causation, but I’m guessing that the epidemiology still shows that both sugars and saturated fats are associated with increased heart disease risk.

My interpretation: We would all be healthier eating less of sugary foods and fatty meats.

Here are the relevant documents for your reading pleasure:

The Sugar Association issued a response to today’s article by Kearns et al.:

We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities…Generally speaking, it is not only unfortunate but a disservice that industry-funded research is branded as tainted…We question this author’s continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences to conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative, particularly when the last several decades of research have concluded that sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease.  Most concerning is the growing use of headline-baiting articles to trump quality scientific research—we’re disappointed to see a journal of JAMA’s stature being drawn into this trend.

I will post press accounts as they appear (I’m quoted in most of these):

Jul 6 2016

No, butter is not back (eat in moderation, please)

I like butter as much as you do—and definitely more than margarine—but Time Magazine took it to an extreme with its cover story last year on how scientists (they are so dumb) got it wrong.

Hype alert: any time you read that science got it wrong, be skeptical.  Maybe they did, but it’s more likely that the science is still incomplete.

Time Magazine is really dug in on the butter issue.  It continues to insist that scientists were wrong about saturated fats.  Indeed, Time says, its case against saturated fats has just gotten even stronger.

On what basis?  A new study with the provocative title, “Is butter back?”   The study concludes:

This systematic review and meta-analysis suggests relatively small or neutral overall associations of butter with mortality, CVD, and diabetes.

It comes as no surprise that a single food like butter is not linked to a higher risk of heart disease. The highly respected Cochrane Collaboration’s meta-analysis of 15 randomized clinical trials concluded that replacing saturated fat (from all sources) with polyunsaturated fats lowers the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events. (That finding is consistent with clinical studies on blood cholesterol levels and well-designed analyses of observational studies). One would not expect any single food to matter, since people who eat butter don’t necessarily eat an overall diet that is high in saturated fat.

No, butter is not back says the Harvard School of Public Health:

What the headlines miss is that in a meta-analysis such as this, there is no specific comparison (i.e. butter vs. olive oil), so the default comparison becomes butter vs. the rest of the diet. That means butter is being compared to a largely unhealthy mix of refined grains, soda, other sources of sugar, potatoes, and red meat…Here is the most important takeaway from this study not making headlines: Butter, a concentrated source of saturated fat, is still a worse choice than sources of healthy unsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive, soybean, or canola oils.

And just published is the Harvard group’s latest report on the diet and health of tens of thousands of nurses:

Different types of dietary fats have divergent associations with total and cause-specific mortality. These findings support current dietary recommendations to replace saturated fat and trans-fat with unsaturated fats.

Even the “Is butter back?” investigators temper their conclusions:

These findings do not support a need for major emphasis in dietary guidelines on either increasing or decreasing butter consumption, in comparison to other better established dietary priorities; while also highlighting the need for additional investigation of health and metabolic effects of butter and dairy fat.

Time Magazine:  Your science writers need to do a better job of reading the literature and putting new studies in context.

Readers: consider “scientists are wrong” (and, by implication, “we are right”) to be a red flag.  Saturated fat is one nutrient in diets that contain many, and studies that examine the effects of one nutrient without considering the total diet—and calorie balance—are highly likely to require further research.   In the meantime, enjoy butter—in moderation, of course.

Apr 27 2016

The fuss over previously unpublished data from the Minnesota Heart Study

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned several new studies that elicited much media attention.  I am now getting around to them.

Let’s start with the article in the BMJ about newly discovered data from the Minnesota Heart Study purportedly casting doubt on the risks of saturated fat (here’s what the Washington Post said about it).

The BMJ article concluded:

Findings from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment add to growing evidence that incomplete publication has contributed to overestimation of the benefits of replacing saturated fat with vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid.

I’ve been at this game long enough to guess that any statement suggesting that everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong ought to raise red flags and call for more than the usual degree of skepticism.

Here are some sensible and, yes, skeptical comments about this study:

From Julia Belluz of Vox

But there were a few major problems with the research. The study involved men and women of an average age of 52 who had been admitted to a nursing home and six state mental health hospitals because they were sick. The researchers who conducted the meta-analysis note the “results are not necessarily generalizable to populations without mental illnesses or living outside nursing homes.”

Another issue: The study followed 9,423 women and men, but only a quarter of the participants followed the diets for more than a year. Altering one’s diet for a short period of time — especially in old age — would not necessarily affect one’s long-term health risks….

…Some of the biggest controversies surround saturated fats. Scientists disagree about the extent to which saturated fats contribute to important health outcomes like heart disease, stroke, and cancer. The available research does suggest, however, that there are health benefits from replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet, and that eating lots of nutrient-poor carbs (like sugary cereals, soda, and white bread) instead of fat is a bad idea.

From David Katz, to whom I am often grateful for taking on such things, writes that this study

tested something that nobody expert in nutrition is recommending: an extremely high dose of omega-6, linoleic acid…we already got the memo that this is a dubious proposition.

With all due respect to the BMJ authors, I personally found it a bit odd that they stated the following: “A key component of dietary guidelines has long been to replace saturated fat with oils rich in linoleic acid…” The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, let alone the far better 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, make no such recommendation. Searching for any mention of linoleic acid, I found it only in the appendices in the context of descriptions and definitions, not in any of the actionable guidance. While the current Dietary Guidelines do recommend limiting saturated fat intake, the replacement encouraged is a balance of healthful oils, such as olive, and the fats found natively in, as noted, nuts, seeds, avocado, and fish.

From Martijn Katan, the Dutch lipid biochemist who did the original work demonstrating the cholesterol-raising effects of trans fats, writes in an e-mail:

I have not had time to study the BMJ article on the Minnesota Heart Study in detail. However, some of my colleagues did, and I think that their conclusions are correct:

  1. The randomized trial itself showed no effect on disease or death
  2. This was to be expected because most subjects were on the diet for less than 1 year. This was due to the change in regime for psychiatric patients that took place during that period, which essentially caused the trial to fail. Lowering cholesterol by 14% for one year does not noticably affect CVD risk.
  3. The relation of a larger fall in cholesterol with a larger risk of mortality did not emerge from the randomized study; subjects were not randomized to various levels of cholesterol lowering. It is an observational association. The question than arises which causes which. Various occult diseases, notably cancer, cause cholesterol to fall as the disease progresses. This also explains the association seen in observational studies between low cholesterol and cancer. That observation led me to think up in 1985 the technique now known as ‘Mendelian Randomization’ [1]. Application of that technique showed that the association of low cholesterol and cancer is indeed spurious [2].

The only new thing about the present study is that they revived the long disproved hypothesis that lowering cholesterol causes various diseases. Hundreds of thousands of patients in statin trials have proven this wrong….

[1] Katan, M.B., 1986. Apolipoprotein E isoforms, serum cholesterol, and cancer. Lancet 1, 507–8.

[2] Trompet, S.,et al ., 2009. Apolipoprotein E genotype, plasma cholesterol, and cancer: a Mendelian randomization study. Am J Epidemiol 170, 1415–21.

My bottom line on this one

It confirms the value of basic dietary advice: Eat a variety of relatively unprocessed foods, mostly plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts), balance calories, and enjoy what you eat!

Do this and food fatty acids will balance out too and you won’t need to give them another thought.

The moral

Whenever you read a headline suggesting that everything you know about nutrition is wrong, roll your eyes, eat something delicious, and wait for confirming studies to come along before deciding to ignore that basic advice.

Feb 25 2016

Food Navigator-USA’s Special Edition on on Oils and fats

Is fat really good or bad and, one way or the other, is it really back?

Food Navigator-USA has an interest in fats from the perspective of companies that use them in food processing.  Here’s what it says:

Fats are often classed into good, bad and ugly categories. But do consumers know which are which, and how can manufacturers help increase consumption of the healthier variety (MUFAs and PUFAs) and reduce trans- and saturated fats (and that’s assuming that saturated fats really are the bogeyman many dietitians have made them out to be)?

Protein is hot, sugar is public enemy #1, and fat is back (so the trend-watchers say). But when it comes to good, bad and ugly fats, does everyone agree on which are which? Check out our gallery of insights from consumers, industry stakeholders, and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee…

Cobram Estate will enter US to fill what it says is a void in high quality, extra virgin olive oilsAward winning Australian olive oil manufacturer Cobram Estate in February will extend its reach into the competitive US market, which it says suffers a dearth of high quality, extra virgin olive oils. .. Read

Solazyme to launch algae butter in early 2016: We’re offering a hard fat from a completely new sourceSolazyme is aiming to launch the latest addition to its micro-algae-based ingredients portfolio in early 2016 – an algae butter – which it says could replace hard fats such as palm oil or partially hydrogenated oils in a variety of applications spanning confectionery, bakery and spreads… Read

Do we need new labeling conventions around fully hydrogenated oils?Fully hydrogenated oils (FHOs) do not create harmful trans-fats, and could replace partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) in many applications. However, manufacturers are reluctant to use them because the word ‘hydrogenated’ has become “demonized”, argues one expert, who says efforts are underway to find an alternative name for FHOs that will satisfy manufacturers, consumers, and regulators.  .. Read

Judge stays Gen Mills trans fat lawsuit, but FDA has left firms exposed to civil litigation, argue attorneysIn a ruling that will be read with interest by food manufacturers worried about being sued for using partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), a judge in California has stayed a PHO-related class action vs General Mills until the FDA decides whether certain low-level uses should be permitted… Read

JM Smucker to settle lawsuit over ‘all natural’ claims on Crisco oils made with GMOsJM Smucker has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit accusing it of misleading shoppers by labeling selected Crisco cooking oil as ‘all natural’, according to court papers filed in New York… Read

Solazyme unveils Thrive, the first culinary algae oil in the market and its first consumer food brandMicroalgae specialist Solazyme has moved into the consumer packaged goods (CPG) arena with the launch of Thrive, a culinary oil from algae that will make its debut at upmarket grocer Gelson’s Markets in southern California this week… Read

Solazyme expands algae oil JV with Bunge to develop ‘breakthrough” products for food and animal nutritionSan Francisco-based microalgae pioneer Solazyme has expand its joint venture with oils expert Bunge to develop a “range of breakthrough oils for food and products for animal nutrition”… Read

Extra virgin olive oil exec: You wouldn’t buy rotten meat or stale bread, so why are you buying rotten olive oil?Claims that much of the extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) sold in US supermarket is not ‘extra virgin’ at all are hardly new. But the fact that many retail buyers are effectively turning a blind eye to such widespread fraud is immensely frustrating for companies that are playing by the rules, says one industry expert… Read

FDA revokes GRAS status of partially hydrogenated oils; allows food industry to file petition to permit specific usesAs widely expected, the FDA has finalized plans to revoke the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) in a bid to eradicate artificial trans fats from the US food supply. However, it says manufacturers may petition the agency to permit specific uses of PHOs… Read

Sep 28 2015

Never a dull moment: the BMJ’s attack on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report

Really, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) report shouldn’t be this controversial and shouldn’t be controversial at all (as I’ve said before).  But lots of people—the food industry, of course, but also some scientists and journalists—seem to have exceptionally intense opinions about the fat recommendations [Recall:  The DGAC report does not constitute the Dietary Guidelines; these are written by USDA and HHS and are not due out until the end of this year].

Now, we have the journalist Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, repeating the themes of her book in the BMJ: The scientific report guiding the US dietary guidelines: is it scientific?.

The BMJ has also found that the committee’s report used weak scientific standards, reversing recent efforts by the government to strengthen the scientific review process. This backsliding seems to have made the report vulnerable to internal bias as well as outside agendas.

Teicholz’s interpretation of the science relating dietary fat to health has been thoroughly critiqued (see end of post).   The way I see it, these arguments are difficult to resolve outside the context of dietary patterns as a whole.

My hypothesis (note: hypothesis) is that for people who balance calorie intake with expenditure, the type of fat—or carbohydrate—matters much less than it does for people who overeat calories.  This hypothesis needs testing to confirm it.

What troubles me about Teicholz’s work is the certainty with which she presents her ideas.  She comes across as utterly convinced she is right, even in the face of substantial and substantive criticism of her statements and interpretations.

At least one error

Here, for example, is one statement in the BMJ article that I know from personal experience cannot be correct.

Much has been written about how industries try to influence nutrition policy, so it is surprising that unlike authors in most major medical journals, guideline committee members are not required to list their potential conflicts of interest.

I was a member of the 1995 DGAC and I was required to declare conflicts of interest.  So were members of the committees in 2000, 2005, and 2010, as shown in this excellent short video.

Later, discussing conflicts of interest among DGAC members, Teicholz says:

Still, it’s important to note that in a field where public research dollars are scarce, nearly all nutrition scientists accept funding from industry. [Nearly all?  I don’t, and I doubt this is correct].  Of far greater influence is likely to be bias in favor of an institutionalized hypothesis as well as a “white hat” bias to distort information for what is perceived as righteous ends.

The “white hat bias” comment refers to a paper by authors who themselves report food-industry funding:

Competing Interests. Drs. Allison and Cope have received grants, honoraria, donations, and consulting fees from numerous food, beverage, dietary supplement, pharmaceutical companies, litigators, and other commercial, government, and nonprofit entities with interests in obesity and nutrition including in interests in breastfeeding and NSBs. Dr. Cope has recently accepted a position with The Solae Company (St Louis, MO.).

Responses to the BMJ article

The DGAC wrote a rebuttal to Teicholz.  It is published on the BMJ website.

HHS also published a statement, reproduced by Mother Jones.

The British Medical Journal’s decision to publish this article is unfortunate given the prevalence of factual errors. HHS and USDA required the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to conduct a rigorous, systematic and transparent review of the current body of nutrition science. Following an 19-month open process, documented for the public on, the external expert committee submitted its report to the Secretaries of HHS and USDA. HHS and USDA are considering the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, along with comments from the public and input from federal agencies, as we develop the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to be released later this year.

Yoni Freedhoff’s Weighty Matters blog provides a handy summary of additional responses to the BMJ article.

Scientific analysis of The Big Fat Surprise

Many of the scientific claims in this book seemed so far-fetched that they induced a nutritionist, Seth Yoder, to go over it line by line, read the references, and point out discrepancies.   These are posted on his website in two parts.

A summary quote from Part 1:

What makes this particular book interesting is not so much that it is bad (which it is) or that it is extravagantly biased (which it also is). No, what really fascinates me about this book is that the author excessively and shamelessly lifts other people’s material.

And a quote from Part 2

The Big Fat Surprise (BFS) by Nina Teicholz is yet another book in a long line of books that informs the reader that everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong: saturated fat from animals is actually quite good for you, cholesterol isn’t really important, the government lied to you, nutritionists and dietitians lied to you, the American Heart Association lied to you, etc… Leaving aside that the concept of that kind of a conspiracy actually existing is really absurd, what I’m surprised about is that publishers can keep churning out books like this and people are gullible enough to keep buying them.

Caveat emptor.


Jul 28 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership’s food issues: rice, sugar, Malaysian palm-oil, trans fats

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations are taking place this week in Maui, as usual, in deep secret.

Doug Palmer of Pro Politico describes the major food issues: dairy, origin names, pork, rice, and sugar.  The issues come down to market share.  Every country wants to protect its own products but have free access to markets in other countries.

Although not a food, tobacco best explains why the TPP makes people nervous.  US tobacco companies want the TPP to open new markets.  But one of the TPP provisions is said to allow corporations sue governments that pass rules that might hurt the corporation’s business.  Philip Morris sued Australia over its “plain packaging” law and is now suing Great Britain.

The US position is supposedly that a country’s measures  to protect the health of humans, animals, or plants should not be in violation of the TPP, and that challenges to tobacco-control measures should be cleared with TPP partners.   Malaysia, for example, has proposed to exempt tobacco-control measures from challenges under TPP.


The State Department has just taken Malaysia off its list of the worst countries for human trafficking (see the July 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report).

What a coincidence.  This allows Malaysia to participate in TPP negotiations.

But what bad timing.  The Wall Street Journal has just published a harrowing story about the de facto slavery of palm-oil workers on Malaysian plantations (the New York Times just did one on “sea slaves” forced to fish for pet food or animal feed).

As Rainforest Action Network said of the Malaysia story in a press release:

July 27, 2015 (SAN FRANCISCO) – The Obama administration has removed Malaysia from the list of worst offenders for human trafficking and forced labor today, one day after The Wall Street Journal published an extensive report on human trafficking and forced labor on Malaysian palm oil plantations that directly supply major U.S. companies. Malaysia is one of 12 nations in the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and inclusion of a country with the lowest ranking in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report would be problematic for the administration.

And then, there’s the trans-fat connection:  The US demand for replacement of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils has pushed Malaysia and other palm-oil countries to produce more palm oil, faster.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

Palm oil has been repeatedly named on the U.S. Department of Labor’s list of industries that involve forced and child labor, most recently in 2014. Activists have blamed palm-oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia for large-scale deforestation and human-rights abuses. Oil palm growers respond that the palm tree, a high-yield crop, is a useful tool for socioeconomic development.

palm oil

The TPP is hard to understand, not least because negotiations are secret.  In giving the President the go-ahead to sign the agreement, Congress made two stipulations:

  • Congress must be notified 90 days in advance of signing.
  • The terms of the agreement must be disclosed to the public 60 days prior to signing.

At least that.  TPP deserves very close scrutiny.

Feb 23 2015

Dietary guidelines shouldn’t be this controversial

The uproar caused by the release of the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has been even noisier than I predicted, so noisy that USDA Secretary Vilsack appears to have pulled back on it.  He told Jerry Hagstrom ( that:

He wants people to realize that the process of writing the dietary guidelines “is just beginning today,” and that he and [HHS Secretary] Burwell will consider input from federal agencies and the general public. He said he wants to be sure that people “know that I know my responsibility.”

In this, Vilsack was referring to the directive by Congress in the 2015 appropriations bill blocking him from considering sustainability in the guidelines.

As for the DGAC report: It concluded:

…the U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains.

Predictably, this did not go over well with the meat industry or, for that matter, other industries affected by such advice or groups funded by such industries.

Less predictably, the New York Times published an Op-Ed by Nina Teicholz, the journalist author of “The Big Fat Surprise,” a work based on her own review of the science of fat.  In her view, mainstream nutritionists have badly misinterpreted this science to the great detriment of public health.

Her conclusion:

…we would be wise to return to what worked better for previous generations: a diet that included fewer grains, less sugar and more animal foods like meat, full-fat dairy and eggs.

But Teicholz’ book has been the subject of a line-by-line analysis by Seth Yoder (whom I do not know personally).  Mr. Yoder did what graduate students in science are trained to do: read the references.

He looked up and examined the references Teicholz cites in the book as the basis of her views.  He documents an astonishing number of situations in which the references say something quite different from what Teicholz gets out of them.  At the very least, his analysis raises serious questions about the credibility of her views on the science of fat.

Let’s grant that the science of nutrition is difficult to do and complicated.  The New York Times should know this, which is why I’m surprised that it would give Teicholz so prominent a platform without countering them with point-counterpoint views of a respected nutrition scientist.

It does little to foster the health of the public to make nutrition science appear more controversial than it really is.

The basic advice offered by 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee boils down to plain common sense:

  • Eat plenty of foods from plant sources
  • Eat foods from animal sources in moderation
  • Balance calories
  • Avoid overeating junk food

Unfortunately, this kind of advice doesn’t make headlines or, apparently, merit op-ed space in the New York Times.

Jun 18 2014

Time Magazine: “Eat Butter.” Maybe in moderation, please?

I love butter as much as the next person, but when I went to New York’s Food Fest yesterday, the butter makers were all proudly displaying Time Magazine’s provocative June 23 cover.


The cover story is by Bryan Walsh.

It comes with an even more provacative video–one of those “everything you thought you knew about diet is wrong” things.

I’m quoted in his article, but I wish he had quoted more of my comments about context.

He says saturated fat consumption is down, but heart disease is still the number one killer of Americans.

Yes it is, but not nearly as much as it used to be (as I discussed in a previous post):

Americans must be doing something right.

The big problem is type-2 diabetes.  It’s going up in parallel with obesity: Fat calories and sugar calories contribute to obesity.

The dietary bottom line?  Eat your veggies, balance calories, and stay active.

Really, it’s not more complicated than that.

But that kind of advice will never make the cover of Time, alas.

Addition, June 20: David Katz on how easy it is to misinterpret studies of saturated fat (or sugars for that matter) and health.

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