“Butter is Back” Mark Bittman (or one of his editors at the NYT) proclaimed in the headline of a recent Op-ed, which jolted people into internet activism last week (otherwise known as commenting/sharing/liking). Based on a recent review of studies on the effects of saturated fat on heart disease in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Bittman concluded that it was time people stopped fearing fat, and swap their margarine for the real deal. This sparked a wave of criticism from the medical community, the margarine industry, and the American Heart Association among others.
The problem is most readers seem to miss the mark on the underlying point of the article. If you read the the whole article it is obvious Bittman is not promoting slathering butter on your bacon, rather he is saying butter (and fat in general) are not bad for you in moderation, especially when they come from humanely raised, pastured animals. High quality meat and dairy tend to cost more, but in a way that is the point. They should be more of “special occasion” items, rather than everyday necessities. Is it better for you to butter your toast with a slab of grass-fed butter on occasion or is it better to eat partially-hydrogenated chemical margarine daily (because it is saturated fat-free!)? Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but it seems difficult to argue that eating chemical-based food is better than eating whole foods.
“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.”
Of course most people focused on the eat butter rather than don’t be afraid to include natural fats in your diet part of the article and missed his underlying point. We have been taught to forego foods high in fat. How can we possibly fear the fat-content of avocados and not worry about what actually constitutes highly processed fat-free ice cream, salad dressings, and deli meats that make up the majority of the SAD (standard American diet)?
Fat, the laymen’s term for triglycerol, needs a good PR firm. The chemical form of fat is still equated with the fat people battle with on their waistlines. I truly believe if fat went by a different name, it could be perceived in a whole new light. The fats that are the most worrisome are those we have created in the lab. Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils pose far more risks to well-being than a well-marbled steak or olive oil. The industrial food industry would like to keep us thinking otherwise, Richard Cristol, the President of the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers, responded with a Letter to the Editor, kindly reminding people that “Soft spread margarine has 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving compared with butter’s 7 grams. But most important, margarine companies have removed all the partially hydrogenated oil, the source of trans fat, from branded soft spread margarines.” Margarine may not have trans fat, but its sure got a helluva lot of other terrifying ingredients (also: butter has always been free of trans fat).
ps – if you read Bittman’s article and the first thing that comes to mind is “Hooray I don’t have to feel guilty about putting two whole sticks of butter in my next batch of cookies!” you are on the wrong track.