The Market's Fine Print

When Fat Was a Naughty Word

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst
It could take another generation before the unjustified stigma of fat in food is totally dispelled. In the meantime, who knows what twisted theories will irresponsibly roll out of the laboratory? (Photo by vmiramontes, CC BY 2.0)

Over my considerable tenure at the flagpole of market opinion, I have been showered by monsoons and thunderstorms of indignant criticism, faultfinding of incredible scope and variety.

From the rarified air of ivory towers to the sweaty trenches of real livestock production, my thoughtful accusers have alternately judged my conclusions to be too optimistic, too pessimistic, excessively bearish, irresponsibly bullish, short-sighted, poorly supported, lost in data, blind to technical reality, unjustifiably smitten with government reports, bereft of basic math skills, politically motivated, economically self-serving, and just plain stupid.

Not everyone can be such a popular lightning rod for disagreement. It takes a certain talent.

There are two kinds of market analysts: those with thick skin and those who have retreated to a dark cave. Maybe Republican presidential candidates should spend less time whining over debate rules and more time training on the angry questions of confused meat producers.

While I like to think I can take a punch with the best of them (rope-a-doping from one mystifying price swing to the next), there have been some body blows that continue to sting long after they were first landed. Take the country fighter who strongly objected to my reference to “FAT” cattle.

It was sometime in the mid-1980s when the dietary “war on fat” was about as hotly contested as the second day at Gettysburg. I had mindlessly reported the feedlot trade in my closing commentary, routinely saying something like “with fats selling between $58 and $60.” Harmless enough, don’t you think?

Not to at least one politically correct marketer of the day.

“You do more harm than you can imagine, Mr. Harrington,” my memorable critic began. “Calling finished cattle ‘fats’ is a death sentence for the beef industry. Can’t you see that your description only stokes the worst fears of consumers who are now being convinced that fat in any dietary form will pretty much cause their hearts to explode? Given the current stage of food propaganda, ‘fat’ cattle sound about as wholesome and nourishing as arsenic on a bun.”

The temperature of the phone sizzled and then slowly cooled as I let him vent over the usage of traditional cowboy lingo. Silly stuff, so I thought. Between the farm depression, struggling beef demand, and crippled equity throughout the industry, surely this guy could find a more worthy gripe.

Yet, there’s a reason this moment among so many complaint-rich moments still sticks in my craw nearly 30 years later. In being so picky to the point of paranoia, my critic from the 1980s accurately reflected how erroneous health claims and perceptions can seriously threaten livestock markets. Furthermore, that devastating potential remains alive and well in the 21st century. More on that in a minute.

It may be worthwhile at this point to briefly rehearse how the “war on fat” got started, how ill-conceived food science triggered enormous changes from the population of barnyards to the eating habits of American consumers, and how it was ultimately exposed as a complete sham, an offensive that makes the invasion of Iraq look as wise and valiant as D-Day.

In 1977, a Senate committee led by George McGovern published its landmark “Dietary Goals for the United States,” urging Americans to eat less high-fat red meat, eggs and dairy and replace them with more calories from fruits, vegetables and especially carbohydrates.

By 1980 such wisdom was codified, prompting the USDA to issue its first dietary guidelines (sound familiar?). One of the primary directives was to avoid cholesterol and fat of all sorts.

The National Institutes of Health recommended that all Americans over the age of 2 cut fat consumption. That same year, the government announced the results of a $150 million study, which had a clear message: Eat less fat and cholesterol to reduce your risk of a heart attack.

From 1977 to 2012, per capita consumption of those foods dropped while calories from supposedly healthy carbohydrates increased -- no surprise, given that breads, cereals and pasta were at the base of the USDA food pyramid.

Grocery stores exploded with new products and labels, all designed around the new religion of low fat. Unrepentant sinners who still publicly lusted for the fat-lined Babylon of a well-marbled T-bone were shunned by born-again lovers of lean.

Over the course of two rocking decades, blind belief in the new diet caused per capita beef consumption to implode and per capita chicken consumption to rocket higher. In the midst of the turmoil, cattlemen made the situation worse by aggressively embracing continental genetics, eventually producing product that was leaner but less succulent and tasteful.

And then toward the end of the 1990s, the tide of scientific research started to turn back to sanity.

Now, nearly four decades after McGovern and company launched the great national fat-out, virtually all scientists agree that the experiment was a complete failure. After cutting the fat at every level, Americans are sicker than ever. The prevalence of Type 2 diabetes increased 166% from 1980 to 2012. Deaths from heart disease have fallen -- a fact that many experts attribute to better emergency care, less smoking and widespread use of cholesterol-controlling drugs like statins -- but cardiovascular disease remains the country’s No. 1 killer. Even more alarming, a third of the country is now obese, making the U.S. one of the fattest countries in an increasingly fat world.

New research suggests that it’s the overconsumption of carbohydrates, sugar and sweeteners that is chiefly responsible for the epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Refined carbohydrates -- like those in “wheat” bread, hidden sugar, low-fat crackers and pasta -- cause changes in blood chemistry that encourage the body to store the calories as fat and intensify hunger, making it that much more difficult to lose weight.

Did I mention that food manufacturers during this delusional era aggressively spiked nonfat products with sugars and sweeteners in order to replace the tastefulness lost when fat was given the bum’s rush? Ain’t unintended consequences the pits?

At least this sad chapter of food science is officially behind us. I say “officially” because old habits die slowly. It could take another generation before the unjustified stigma of fat is totally dispelled. In the meantime, who knows what twisted theories will irresponsibly roll out of the laboratory?

That’s why the meat industry this fall has been vigilant and proactive, both when the USDA considered its latest update of dietary guidelines last month and when the World Health Organization last week suggested that eating processed meats including hot dogs, ham and bacon raises the risk (from what?) of colon cancer and that consuming other red meats “probably” raises the risk as well.

The field of food science may deserve more respect than alchemy and phrenology, but not much more. Given the near-impossible task of isolating a single food ingredient within the enormous wall of behavior and environment in order to uniquely tie it to a specific disease, white coats around the world should be paragons of humility.

Yet scientists have been known to be a cocky lot, especially when encouraged by the cheerleaders in marketing. Perhaps all we can hope is that the next radical dietary claim be chastened by the anti-fat story of the last 20th century and how painfully wrong it turned out to be.

John Harrington can be reached at feelofthemarket@yahoo.com

Follow John Harrington on Twitter @feelofthemarket

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John Harrington