The FDA's phony nutrition science: How Big Food and Agriculture trumps real science -- and why the government allows it

Sugar and corn syrup have been pumped into the food chain, causing a dramatic increase in illnesses. Here's why

Published April 12, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Excerpted from "Sugar Crush: How to Reduce Inflammation, Reverse Nerve Damage and Reclaim Good Health"

Lie: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Knows What Should Be on Your Plate

You know by now that sugar has been pumped into the food chain over the last fifty years, especially in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in a whole range of illnesses that manifest in different parts of your bodies, depending on your own genetic profile. All are caused by the same underlying impact of inflammation from sugar, and the resulting nerve damage and compression. Medical professionals can be blinded by the bias of their specialties and miss the important connections linking these seemingly unrelated conditions. But like us, they’re hampered by information linked to the partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Big Agra complex.

When the Government Took an Interest in What You Eat

In 1916, the USDA began a well-intended nutrition education program consisting of two publications, “Food for Young Children” and “How to Select Food.” These plans established guidelines for groups and households to provide “protective foods.” Then, in 1992, after several successive programs, the USDA established the familiar Food Guide Pyramid, with its six basic food groups. The base of the pyramid, as we all recall, consisted of the Bread, Cereal, Rice & Pasta Group. Americans were advised that in order to be healthy, they needed to consume 6–11 servings of these foods per day! The pyramid then stacked foods in descending importance: fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products, and finally, fats and sweets to be used sparingly. A modified MyPyramid Food Guidance System was initiated in 2005; it added the concept of exercise and stressed moderation in food choices rather than specific daily servings.

The latest incarnation, established in 2011, is a dinner plate icon called MyPlate, which advises us on the percentages of foods we should consume daily: 30 percent grains, 40 percent vegetables, 10 percent fruits, and 20 percent protein, with a small, side portion of dairy.

And yet the official government dietary guidelines for healthy eating are dangerously wrong in almost every respect. Like the old food pyramid in its various incarnations, the new food plate is the product of the marriage of politics and Big Agra lobbying—actual nutrition has very little to do with the recommendations. As they stand today, and have for decades, the official recommendations of the USDA are determined by the commercial interests of agribusiness. They’re also the primary reason why two-thirds of all Americans are overweight. They’re why 29 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, another 19 million have it but don’t know it, and 79 million people have prediabetes. They’re also why I never lack for patients suffering from diabetic peripheral neuropathy.

So, what’s wrong with MyPlate? Almost everything. Specifically, the USDA officially promotes a diet that is far too high in carbohydrates and far too low in healthy fat. In other words, your government is promoting a diet that will make you obese, give you a whole slew of illnesses, and kill your nerves.

How Did These Dangerous USDA Recommendations Get Started?

It all started back in the 1950s, when there was an epidemic of middle-aged men dropping dead of heart attacks. The cause, according to the experts, was too much saturated fat in the diet. How did they arrive at this assumption? First, because they knew that a heart attack is caused by a blockage in an artery nourishing the heart. They also knew that atherosclerotic plaques, made up mostly of cholesterol, caused the blockage. And because foods that are high in saturated fat, such as meat, also contain cholesterol, they came to the conclusion, with very little evidence, that a high-fat diet caused heart disease.

Much as I like to see dots connected, the steps that link saturated fat in the diet to a higher risk of a heart attack were unproved then—and they remain unproved. Even so, the saturated fat–cholesterol–heart hypothesis became an article of faith.

But was there actually an epidemic of heart attacks among middle-aged men in the 1950s? No. Instead, there was an epidemic of men aged 50 and up. In 1900, the average life expectancy of an American male was 48 years. Most men died of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, diphtheria, and gastrointestinal illnesses. Accidents of various sorts killed many more men than they do today. In 1900, nutritional deficiencies were fairly common. Pellagra, caused by a lack of the B vitamin niacin, was widespread in the South until the 1930s and beyond.

By 1950, however, the average American male was living into his seventies. Death from infectious disease was way down, due to improved living conditions and the discovery of antibiotics. Death from malnutrition was rare and overall, life was safer and healthier. Many more men were now making it into their fifties and beyond, reaching the prime heart attack years. That means more men were dying of heart attacks simply because more were surviving long enough to have one.

The apparent increase in the rate of heart attacks got a lot of attention, mostly from older white men who were worried about having one themselves (more women die of heart attacks than men, but that fact was largely ignored in the uproar). Then, when President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955, his cardiologist, the famed Dr. Paul Dudley White, blamed the president’s high-fat diet and put him on a low-fat diet instead. (The fact that Eisenhower had smoked four packs of cigarettes a day up until 1949 didn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind as being a likely cause.) When Ike ran again for president in 1956, the low-fat diet was credited for his recovery and ability to return to work. What never got publicized is that Ike hated his low-fat diet. He felt hungry all the time even as he gained weight and his cholesterol continued to rise. He also continued to have heart attacks—six more after leaving office. The last and fatal attack occurred in 1969.

Again, Follow the Money

The supposed link between saturated fats and heart disease was a marketing windfall for the food industry. Suddenly they had a demand for a product that had been pretty unpopular up until then: margarine. In the 1860s, Emperor Napoleon II of France offered a prize for anyone who could come up with an acceptable substitute for butter. Because butter is made from milk, and because cows go dry in the winter, butter in those days before refrigeration was a scarce and expensive commodity. Also, because butter was made by hand on the farm, the quality varied and dairy farmers and retailers were tempted to cheat by adulterating the butter with colorings and flavorings. The prize was won in 1869 by a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. Alas, the next year saw the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian

War and Napoleon’s abdication; his margarine process, which used beef tallow, never got the government backing Mège-Mouriès hoped for and he died in poverty in 1880.

When hydrogenation, which converts liquid vegetable oils into soft solids, was invented in the early 1900s, margarine became cheaper and easier to produce. It continued to be sold as a cheap substitute for butter, but it was strongly opposed by the dairy industry, for obvious reasons. The industry particularly objected to the use of yellow dye to make the unattractive white margarine look even more tempting than real butter. Margarine gradually caught on as a cheap butter substitute, even though it didn’t really taste much like butter. However, when the saturated fat in butter was named public enemy number one for heart disease, margarine began to be touted as a healthier substitute.

What could be better from a marketing standpoint? Concerned housewives bought margarine to save their husbands from a heart attack—and saved money at the same time! There was just one catch. The manufacturing process that made margarine solid at room temperature did so by changing the molecular structure of the fat molecules. They were warped into something called trans fatty acids, or trans fats for short. Nobody knew it at the time, but trans fats are the only kind of fat that is genuinely bad for your health. Unlike other forms of fat, trans fats have been conclusively shown to contribute to heart disease and diabetes. For decades, the American public was completely duped into eating something that was actually more harmful than what it replaced.

Something very similar happened with lard, once a staple fat for cooking. Scarcity, expense, and adulteration were problems with lard. When a solid white shortening known as Crisco became available in 1911, it caught on quickly. That it, like margarine, was very high in trans fats wasn’t seen as a problem until decades later.

And then a highly respected researcher named Ancel Keys said that he had proved the link from saturated fat to heart disease based on his study of the diets of people in seven countries around the world.

The Seven Countries Study

During World War II, Ancel Keys was the researcher who worked out the nutritional requirements for soldiers in the field. K rations weren’t all that successful taste-wise, as anyone who had to eat them would tell you; but they were widely credited with keeping GIs in the field well fed, strong, and ready to fight.

After the war, Dr. Keys turned his attention to heart disease. He thought that high cholesterol levels were a good predictor of heart disease and that dietary fat, especially the saturated fat found in animal foods such as meat and cheese, was bad for the heart. To prove his point, he became the lead researcher in a massive study of dietary patterns around the world that came to be called the Seven Countries Study. This study, begun in 1955, put the American diet onto the misguided path we’re still on today. Although Dr. Keys had the best of intentions and didn’t have the industry ties so many scientists have today, his work fed right into the hands of Big Agra and Big Pharma.

Ancel Keys sent everyone’s focus off in the wrong direction. The pharmaceutical companies and the USDA capitalized on this, and the result is that Americans are fat. Not because they’re eating fat, but because they aren’t. This is an extremely important point, but most of my patients don’t get it. Many of my patients don’t understand that their weight problems and illnesses are caused not by the fat in their diets but by the massive amounts of sugar and unrefined carbs they eat. They’ve been told for so long that fat is bad that they simply take it for granted as true.

The Seven Countries Study is considered a landmark in nutrition. It’s the study that “proved” the link between a high-fat diet and heart disease. The goal of the study was to look at the diets of different populations around the world and discover how diet affected heart disease. By comparing the health of groups of middle-aged men in each country over time, Keys hoped to discover the underlying dietary components that led to, or prevented, heart disease.

It took until 1970 for the results to start appearing. When they did, they seemed to prove the fat diet–heart hypothesis. Deaths from heart attacks were low in Crete, where the population ate little meat, and high in countries like Finland and the United States. Keys drew three conclusions from the study. First, he said it proved that high cholesterol levels predicted heart disease. Second, he said it proved that a diet high in saturated fat raised cholesterol levels and therefore predicted heart disease. And finally, he said he had proof that monounsaturated fats (the kind in vegetable oil) helped protect against heart disease.

There was one big problem with the Seven Countries Study, however—Keys cherry-picked the populations studied. He knew from earlier work that the countries he chose would support his hypothesis. Over the years, another big problem became clear. The data Keys collected didn’t support his conclusions. High cholesterol did mean a higher rate of heart disease, for example; but overall, the populations in the study who ate the most saturated fat lived longer than those who ate less. American men, who ate a lot of saturated fat, had longer life expectancies than did Japanese men, who ate far less.

As the best hucksters know, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The idea that saturated fat was bad for you was intuitively satisfying. After all, if you pour bacon fat down the drain you’ll clog it up. Wouldn’t it be the same for your arteries? And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the renowned Dr. Keys was supposedly proving that fat was bad for you.

His contention was bolstered by early results from the Framingham Heart Study, which started in 1948. The study followed the heart health of residents in Framingham, Massachusetts, over time—in fact, the study is still running and now includes grandchildren of the original participants. In 1961, the Framingham study reported that high cholesterol levels were associated with a higher risk of heart disease. Later studies in the 1960s and 1970s cited other risk factors for heart disease, such as cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, stress, and obesity. The studies also showed that exercise lowers the risk of heart disease.

There is a significant gap in the logic at the core of these recommendations. None of the research that supposedly supports the recommendations provides any evidence that cutting saturated fat or cholesterol from the diet has any impact at all on coronary heart disease (the kind that gives you a heart attack). And in all the years since then, the huge number of studies on the saturated fat–heart link have still not proved a connection.

Flawed Government Guidelines

That brings our story up to 1976 and the birth of official government guidelines for healthy eating. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans had their start in hearings held by Senator George McGovern’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. This is the committee that looked into the serious problem of hunger in America and brought landmark legislation, such as the food stamp program, to the nation. As the committee’s work drew to an end, staffers decided to look at the other side of the issue: overnutrition and the role of diet in disease. Based on expert testimony from nutritionists who were convinced of the saturated fat–heart hypothesis, in 1977 the committee issued dietary recommendations that pushed for a sharp reduction in fat intake. They recommended limiting total fat intake to 30 percent of calories, of which no more than 10 percent should come from saturated fat. At that time, most Americans got about 40 percent of their calories from fat.

The recommendations ignited a firestorm of controversy. Because a good way to cut fat in the diet is to eat less meat and dairy products, the cattle and dairy industries were furious. So were other segments of Big Agra, such as the manufacturers of vegetable oils and shortenings. The idea that Americans should ever eat less of anything incited every agricultural and food processing lobbyist in the country to protest.

In response to the pressure, the guidelines compromised on the dietary fat recommendations, but they still strongly suggested cutting back. The McGovern committee closed down as scheduled in 1979. The dietary guidelines recommendations, rather than expiring with the committee, ended up being taken on by the USDA, where they have remained ever since.

Every five years since the late 1970s, the USDA has issued a set of dietary guidelines for Americans. And every five years, predictably, the food industry rises up to make sure that eating less of anything isn’t in those guidelines. Politics and lobbying shape these dietary recommendations far more than actual science.

Not coincidentally, the surge in weight gain among Americans that had begun with the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup gathered steam with the introduction of the food pyramid and its emphasis on carbohydrates. It’s not that many adults deliberately followed the pyramid guidelines, because most didn’t. Overall, our consumption of fruits and vegetables didn’t increase, and while our fat consumption dropped, it never approached the 30 percent of calories in the recommendations. Today, after decades of dietary advice, scarcely one in ten Americans eats four servings of fresh vegetables a day. Most eat barely one—the lettuce and tomato that come on a fast-food burger.

The really insidious part of the guidelines is that they’re the standard used for school nutrition programs, for nutritional support programs such as WIC and SNAP, and for meal planning in nursing homes and other institutions—in other words, for any food program that involves government money. That’s why your child can be served potato chips in the school lunch program and have them count as a vegetable, or be given a glass of orange juice (another name for concentrated sugar) and have it count as a fruit. It’s also why milk, which is high in sugar in the form of lactose, and flavored yogurt, containing both lactose and added sugar, are pushed in school cafeterias. In other words, official government nutrition recommendations lay the groundwork for later nerve damage.

Excerpted from "Sugar Crush: How to Reduce Inflammation, Reverse Nerve Damage and Reclaim Good Health" by Richard Jacoby and Raquel Baldelomar. Published by HarperWave, a division of HarperCollins Publishing. Copyright 2015 by Richard Jacoby and Raquel Baldelomar. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 

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