THE BLOG
07/25/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

What to Do When Your Food Glows in the Dark

Katrina Wittkamp via Getty Images

What should a culture do with glow-in-the-dark food: (a) toss in a multivitamin for good measure; (b) call it part of a complete breakfast; (c) market it aggressively to children; (d) pretend it's a health food by making it low-fat, low-fructose, low-carb, trans fat free, or something like that; (d) all of the above?

If the answer shouldn't be "d," then folks -- we've got a problem, haven't we?

Perhaps it's an exaggeration to say our food glows in the dark, although I'm not entirely sure. Some varieties of sports drinks, cheese puffs, and breakfast cereals certainly deserve to be tested accordingly. But whether or not they actually phosphoresce, these products are indeed designed to glow. The glowing in question, however, occurs within the dark confines of our skulls.

The recent efforts of Pulitzer-prize winner Michael Moss highlight the willful manufacture of foods that are for all intents and purposes addictive. But Moss' work dishes out epiphanies only to those who failed to get the same memo years earlier. A series of articles in the Chicago Tribune nearly a decade ago highlighted the collaborative efforts of food industry and tobacco industry scientists to identify irresistible flavor combinations. The scientists employed functional MRI scans to determine which flavorants and ingredient combinations most reliably set the hypothalamus, where the human appetite center resides, aglow.

When food is engineered by teams of Ph.D.s in food science, biochemistry, and neuroscience to glow in the dark reaches of the human brain, whether or not it also glows in a dark room is rather beside the point. Yes, our food glows in the dark place that matters most -- and is designed expressly to do so.

That we not only tolerate such adulterations of food but market them preferentially to our children says something profoundly disturbing about our priorities. I won't preach on the topic, but I do invite every fellow parent and grandparent to chew on the implications.

And speaking of chewing, we have a related problem in that area. When endless mastication involves something other than chewing gum or cud, it likely means things have gone rather awry.

That's certainly what it means with regard to diet and health, and in particular, the place for saturated fat in our diets. In the past month, if I have gone a single day without one or more interviews on the "so, what is the truth about saturated fat?" topic, I can't recall it.

The truth is: We have no interest in the truth. A recent, now infamous meta-analysis did not show, nor even hint, that saturated fat is good for us. It certainly did not show or even imply that health could be improved by adding meat, butter, or cheese to our diets. In fact, a whole barrage of recent studies have highlighted an array of harms associated with high intake of meat, in particular the kinds of processed meats that prevail in our culture along with those glow-in-the-dark breakfast items.

All the meta-analysis showed was that our population rate of heart disease has been appallingly high, and frustratingly constant, across the span of decades encompassing low-fat, low-carb, and most recently low-sugar preoccupations. All the meta-analysis showed is that there is more than one way to eat badly, and our culture seems entirely determined to explore them all.

Yes, an excess of sugar and refined starch is at least as bad for us as an excess of saturated fat. But a fixation on either of these, or any one nutrient concern, is an invitation to miss the forest for the trees, and an opportunity for Big Food to invent another variety of junk food. Low-fat can mean Snackwell cookies; low-sugar can mean diet soda; low-carb can mean trans-fat-laden, artificially sweetened brownies; high fructose corn syrup-free can mean more sugar than ever.

The evidence of exactly these responses is no further away than your neighborhood supermarket; you don't need me to make the case, just go shopping for groceries. Anyone willing can see the true designs of our culture by the light of these and other glow-in-the-dark foods.

And yet, we embrace every one-nutrient-at-a-time conspiracy theory, refutation, and fad diet to come down the pike. This isn't about seeking the truth; it's an attempt to avoid it. The typical American dining room is at the corner of prevarication, and procrastination. We would, apparently, rather keep chewing interminably on false hope than swallow the truth.

The exoneration of saturated fat and its principal dietary sources is only the current fashion; something will replace it soon. But while it is the fashion, it's worth noting how misguided it is. The actual findings of the meta-analysis being used to fan the flames of this contention are as noted above; our heart disease rates were just as high with a higher intake of saturated fat as they are now with a higher intake of sugar. If no change in heart disease rates with less saturated fat and more sugar means saturated fat is good for us, then what's good for the fatty goose should be good for the sugary gander. It also must mean that no change in heart disease rates with more saturated fat and less sugar means that sugar is good for us, too. Oops...

But actually, it means neither. Nor are we learning much by parsing the now nearly 70-year-old work of Ancel Keys. If the final word on the subject of dietary intake and health were Keys' now rather ancient work, it might indeed be vital to revisit the specific merits and liabilities of his methods. But the research done since Keys is so much more definitive, that it really doesn't matter anymore what he did, found, or reported.

Consider, for instance, the Lyon Diet Heart Study. This, unlike Keys' observational work, was research with all the requisite bells and whistles: a randomized, blinded, controlled clinical trial. Hundreds of European adults at high risk for heart disease were randomized to either a traditional northern European diet with lots of saturated fat, or a Mediterranean diet with less meat and more plants, and rich in monounsatured fat and omega-3 among other features. The Mediterranean diet reduced major cardiovascular events by over 70 percent. Other studies have shown much the same.

There is no evidence that adding saturated fat, or its principal sources, to the diet improves health. There is compelling evidence of the contrary. That does nothing to exonerate sugar, or high-fructose corn syrup, or an excess of refined starch.

It simply indicates that the New Age fascination with Ancel Keys is something of a boondoggle, for his supporters and detractors alike. Whatever the final truth about Keys -- messiah, pariah, or something in between -- his now 70-year-old work is moot. There has been more published nutritional epidemiology since Keys made his contributions than in the entire history of the world up until then. And the pace of evidence accumulation is only accelerating. Looking at the massive aggregation of evidence now available, as anyone wishing to assert an informed position is obligated to do, leads to only one conclusion: It doesn't matter what Keys' work showed. We have far more decisive evidence available now on which to base our conclusions: detailed mechanistic studies; randomized, blinded, controlled intervention trials; and meta-analyses pooling data for hundreds of thousands of people, using rigorous methods of selection, quality control, and biostatistics.

The current resurrection of saturated fat, meat, butter, or cheese is a manufactured diversion, tailor made for a culture that would prefer to bite into the next conspiracy theory than swallow the truth. It only looks reasonable by the light of glow-in-the-dark foods.

I think the thing to do when your food glows in the dark is fairly obvious. But that's not what our culture does; we just close our eyes, and keep eating.

More bizarre, and far more ironic, is what we do with the truth about food and health. We treat it rather like the cud of those bovines we keep encouraging one another to eat these days. We just keep chewing it into senseless smithereens -- and devoutly refuse to swallow.

-fin

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and author of 'Disease Proof.' He has authored roughly 200 scientific papers and 15 books, including three editions of a nutrition textbook for health care professionals. The third edition of Nutrition in Clinical Practice will be published by Wolters Kluwer in September.

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