Oil and Water

Fat Debates: Science and Sensation

After nearly four decades of fat debates, views are shifting once again. A new study in Appetite paints a fascinating picture of the voices that are rising in this debate. As new stakeholders raise their voices, the balance between science and sensation is decidedly shifting.

Certainly the guidance about dietary fats has changed, but in their new analysis, Piia Jallinoja, Mikko Jauhoa, and Johanna Mäkelä show how character of the public debate has changed just as much.

At the core of the fat debates lies not only the question of healthiness of fats, but also the question over who has the authority to speak about dietary fats – or eating habits in general – and on what basis.

The authors note that chefs and a range other public personalities have recently inserted themselves into this debate and positioned themselves as experts on both consumer preferences and “public intellectuals commenting on public health.” Though their analysis was focused upon Finland, U.S. and international examples are easy to find.

Nina Teicholz is a most visible example. She is an investigative reporter selling a book that’s put her in the middle of the current round of fat debates. Unsatisfied by new dietary guidelines that de-emphasize cholesterol and dietary fat generally, she seeks bigger changes. So she’s hammering away at recommendations to limit saturated fats. Both lay media (The New York Times) and medical media (The BMJ) have given her a megaphone. She sounds more like a crusader than an investigator – journalistic or scientific. Marion Nestle, a critical observer of food and nutrition policy, takes issue with the certitude that Teicholz projects when she pushes her agenda:

How can she be so certain? What I find so distressing is that this just further confuses the public.

According to Politico, Teicholz is working with a diverse collection of nutrition policy skeptics to reshape not only nutrition guidelines, but also the process through which they are developed. Politico describes a noteworthy role for the philanthropy of Laura and John Arnold, who are funding both research and lobbying efforts on nutrition and obesity with impressive sums of money. John Arnold is an energy investor and hedge fund founder who retired at 38 as one of the youngest billionaires in the world.

Sam Kass is yet another example of the diverse voices shaping nutrition policy. From his position as White House Chef, Kass directed much of the work of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative for six years. Here’s now working on food policy and innovation in public and private sector consulting.

Strong views about nutrition are nothing new. Religious authorities were giving guidance for millennia before scientists and public health officials joined the show. Now we have journalists, book authors, entertainers, and celebrity chefs on an increasingly crowded stage.

Perhaps translating nutrition science into policy is becoming an exercise in crowdsourcing.

Click here for the analysis in Appetite and here for more about the ongoing scientific controversy regarding saturated fats.

Oil and Water, photograph © Isabelle Puaut / flickr

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June 2, 2016

4 Responses to “Fat Debates: Science and Sensation”

  1. June 02, 2016 at 6:04 am, Al Lewis said:

    I come down on Nina’s side but that’s not the point. The points are:
    (1) If there were a clear answer that REALLY made a difference, we would know it by now. Two examples are that doctors knew smoking caused lung cancer after about 100 patients, and the Fries study that showed severe hypertension caused strokes required about 180 people.

    (2) there is a hidden assumption that the answer is the same for everyone, which is very unlikely. Since there is so much variation among people.

    • June 02, 2016 at 6:07 am, Ted said:

      I agree, Al, though I have some reservations about Teicholz’s certitude. Her skepticism of the conventional wisdom is helpful, nonetheless. And that connects directly to what you said about the hidden assumption.

  2. June 02, 2016 at 6:20 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thanks, Ted–dang, this is complicated (and the incentives in media/news are to focus on controversy….).

    I found this piece from Julia Belluz at VOX helpful–curious as to your thoughts.



    • June 02, 2016 at 6:55 am, Ted said:

      Good reference and a helpful survey, Joe. Thanks! China has new guidance that incorporates sustainability considerations.