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James McWilliams - a historian who has made a name for himself in prestigious publications like the New York Times
and The Atlantic
for his contrarian defenses of the food industry
- is back at it. In an item
published last week in the excellent Pacific Standard,
McWilliams uses the controversy over a recent study of saturated fat as a club with which to pummel food industry critics like the Times
' Mark Bittman.
Here's what happened: A group including Harvard and Cambridge researchers analyzed
72 studies and concluded that there's no clear evidence that ditching saturated fat (the kind found mainly in butter, eggs, and meat) for the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind (found in fish and a variety of vegetable oils) delivers health benefits.
Bittman responded to the study's release with a Times item
declaring that "butter is back." His real point was more nuanced than that, though. The study's conclusion "doesn't mean you [should] abandon fruit for beef and cheese," he wrote. Rather, he urged, "you [should] just abandon fake food for real food, and in that category of real food you can include good meat and dairy."
After a 1977 decree
by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat, the food industry began to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.
Not so fast, McWilliams countered. He pointed out, correctly, that the study turned out to have errors, which the authors had to correct. But even after the corrections, the study's lead author stood by the overall findings, Science reported
. Another one of the authors told Science
that the study's main problem was the way it was covered by media. "We are not saying the guidelines are wrong and people can eat as much saturated fat as they want," he told Science
. "We are saying that there is no strong support for the guidelines and we need more good trials."
Of course, headline aside, Bittman didn't fall into that trap. He merely urged his readers to accept some fat when they're "looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew," and to use real butter in place of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." Indeed, Bittman's call for moderation in eating animal products is long-standing - he's the author of a book called Vegan Before Six
and a longtime champion of the "Meatless Mondays"