Butter is OK after all
Julia Child, goddess of fat, is beaming somewhere. Butter is back,
and when you’re looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew, you can resume
searching for the best pieces — the ones with the most fat. Eventually, your friends will stop glaring at you as if you’re trying to kill them.
That the worm is turning became increasingly evident a couple of weeks ago, when a meta-analysis published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that there’s just no evidence to support the notion that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. (In fact, there’s some evidence that a lack of saturated fat may be damaging.) The researchers looked at 72 different studies and, as usual, said more work — including more clinical studies — is needed. For sure. But the days of skinless chicken breasts and tubs of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! may finally be drawing to a close.
The tip of this iceberg has been visible for years, and we’re finally beginning to see the base. Of course, no study is perfect and few are definitive. But the real villains in our diet — sugar and ultra-processed foods — are becoming increasingly apparent. You can go back to eating butter, if you haven’t already.
This doesn’t mean you abandon fruit for beef and cheese; you just abandon fake food for real food, and in that category of real food you can include good meat and dairy. I would argue, however, that you might not include most industrially produced animal products; stand by.
Since the 1970s almost everyone in this country has been subjected to a barrage of propaganda about saturated fat. It was bad for you; it would kill you. Never mind that much of the nonsaturated fat was in the form of trans fats, now demonstrated to be harmful. Never mind that many polyunsaturated fats are chemically extracted oils that may also, in the long run, be shown to be problematic.
Never mind, too, that the industry’s idea of “low fat” became the emblematic SnackWell’s and other highly processed “low-fat” carbs (a substitution that is probably the single most important factor in our overweight/obesity problem), as well as reduced fat and even fat-free dairy, on which it made billions of dollars. (How you could produce fat-free “sour cream” is something worth contemplating.)
But let’s not cry over the chicharrones or even nicely buttered toast we passed up. And let’s not think about the literally millions of people who are repelled by fat, not because it doesn’t taste good (any chef will tell you that “fat is flavor”) but because they have been brainwashed.
Rather, let’s try once again to pause and think for a moment about how it makes sense for us to eat, and in whose interest it is for us to eat hyper-processed junk. The most efficient summary might be to say “eat real food” and “avoid anything that didn’t exist 100 years ago.”
You might consider a dried apricot (one ingredient) versus a Fruit Roll-Up (13 ingredients, numbers two, three and four of which are sugar or forms of added sugar). Or you might reflect that real yogurt has two or three ingredients (milk plus bacteria, with some jam or honey if you like) and that the number in Breyers YoCrunch Cookies n’ Cream Yogurt is unknowable (there are a few instances of “and/or”) but certainly at least 18.
Many things have gone awry with the way we produce food. And it isn’t just the existence of junk food but the transformation of ingredients we could once take for granted or thought of as “healthy.” Indeed, meat, dairy, wheat and corn have become foods that frequently contain antibiotics and largely untested chemicals, or are produced using hybrids or methods that have increased yield but may have produced unwanted results.
Although the whole “avoid saturated fat” thing came about largely because regulators were too timid to recommend that we “eat less meat,” meat in itself isn’t “bad”; it’s about quantity and quality. So at this juncture it would be natural for a person who does not read volumes of material about agriculture, diet and health to ask, “If saturated fat isn’t bad for me, why should I eat less meat?”
The best current answer to that: It’s possible to eat as much meat as we do only if it’s grown in ways that are damaging. They’re damaging to our health and the environment (not to mention the tortured animals) for a variety of reasons, including rampant antibiotic use; the devotion of more than a third of our global cropland to feeding animals; and the resulting degradation of the environment from that crop and its unimaginable overuse of chemicals, soil and water.
Even if large quantities of industrially produced animal products were safe to eat, the environmental costs are demonstrable and huge. And so the argument “eat less meat but eat better meat” makes sense from every perspective. If you raise fewer animals, you can treat them more humanely and reduce their environmental impact. And we can enjoy the better butter, too.
Mark Bittman is a columnist for The New York Times.