Who profits from food fads?

It’s funny how food fads change. After a generation and a half of being told fat is bad for us, now we’re told it’s not (probably), and instead the Evil Food de Jour is sugar.

Essential writing fuel!
I’ll have my coffee black without sugar, thank you! I haven’t had sugar in hot drinks since 1986.

There’s a good deal of science behind that. Sugar, in the quantities we eat it today, wasn’t part of our diet as recently as the mid-twentieth century. There is an astonishing amount in a lot of processed or manufactured foods, and I can’t help thinking that the anti-fat crusade has had a lot to do with that – manufacturers substituted sugar and various chemicals for fats.

Once again, of course, we find ourselves victims of the collision between the commercial profit motive and proper nutrition. That hits consumers in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of levels – not just in the range of foods available to buy, but also in terms of the ‘body image’ for women, particularly, that is relentlessly pushed as ‘valid’, often for no better reason than that a product (such as fad diet) can be sold on the back of it.

Meanwhile, it seems some fat is OK – there was a report the other day of a guy who lost 8kg while eating a diet of pies and beer, exclusively, for a month. That worked because he needed 2500 calories daily to maintain body weight, and his actual intake was 1600. It was also a road to malnutrition – he was monitored daily by his doctor and the report came with a load of warnings that, if you did try this, you’d eventually get sick.

But some fats, it seems, are OK for you. So is cholesterol which, it seems, isn’t quite the major cause of plaques and heart attacks it was supposed to be a couple of generations ago. Again, I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons this was mainstreamed was that same intersection between commercial interests and the politics of research funding, mixed – in this case – with the subculture of the scientific communities and the cognitive flaw that usually accompanies trendy theories.

Just to explain that – ‘scientists’ are no less vulnerable than the rest of us to the recency effect, and to social pressures. Once a theory is adopted and mainstreamed it is very hard to dislodge, and it is often upheld as a ‘complete’ or ‘final’ explanation emotionally, even if it can’t be sustained that way by the strict ‘scientific method’ to which the community appeals.

An idea such as ‘fat is bad’ thus becomes orthodoxy – and evidence to the contrary is viewed not as disproof of the theory (‘falsification’) but as a paradox or mystery. In the ‘fat is bad’ case, the problem was that some European diets – French and Italian particularly – involved a lot of the ‘bad fats’, yet these populations don’t suffer the epidemic of cardiac issues that is meant to follow. A mystery, apparently – until you realise that the premise leading to that conclusion is actually wrong.

The idea that fat is actually OK for you is filtering into farming, here in New Zealand, where lambs are being bred for more fat. Apparently that’s not only what the market wants, it’s better for the lamb. They’d bred them over-lean, which was bad for the animal. Now it has a much happier and healthier life. Still a bit of a downer at the end, of course, being served up roast with mint for Sunday lunch, but you can’t have everything.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016