Edible Oil Wars: Early 1900s USA

Please take some time and read the full article here, it is really long and actually has two parts! I have extracted my favorite sections and it is still very long. I have left out some of the very interesting examples of traditional societies foods, as well as the history and description of how vegetable oils are hydrogenated and the history of the McGovern Committee. I do recommend you read the full article: Secrets of the Edible Oil Industry by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig

While turn-of-the-century mortality statistics are unreliable, they consistently indicate that heart disease caused no more than 10 per cent of all deaths – considerably less than infectious diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. By 1950, coronary heart disease (CHD) was the leading source of mortality in the United States, causing more than 30 per cent of all deaths.

The greatest increase came under the rubric of myocardial infarction (MI) – a massive blood clot leading to obstruction of a coronary artery and consequent death to the heart muscle. MI was almost non-existent in 1910 and caused no more than 3,000 deaths per year in 1930. By 1960, there were at least 500,000 MI deaths per year in the US. What lifestyle changes had caused this increase?

A number of researchers noticed a change in the kind of fats Americans were eating. Butter consumption was declining, while the use of vegetable oils, especially oils that had been hardened to resemble butter by a process called ‘hydrogenation’, was increasing dramatically.

By 1950, butter consumption had dropped from 18 pounds per person per year to just over 10 pounds. Margarine filled in the gap, rising from about two pounds per person at the turn of the century to about eight. Consumption of vegetable shortening – used in crackers and baked goods – remained relatively steady at about 12 pounds per person per year, but vegetable oil consumption had more than tripled from just under three pounds per person per year to more than 10 pounds.

The statistics pointed to one obvious conclusion: Americans should eat the traditional foods – including meat, eggs, butter and cheese – that nourished their ancestors, and avoid the newfangled, vegetable-oil-based foods that were flooding the grocers’ shelves.

The lipid hypothesis: namely, that saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources raise cholesterol levels in the blood, leading to deposition of cholesterol and fatty material as pathogenic plaques in the arteries.

In the years that followed, a number of population studies demonstrated that the animal model – especially one derived from vegetarian animals – was not a valid approach for the problem of heart disease in human omnivores.

The 1968 International Atherosclerosis Project, in which over 22,000 corpses in 14 nations were cut open and examined for plaques in the arteries, showed the same degree of atheroma in all parts of the world – in populations that suffered from a great deal of heart disease, and in populations that had very little or none at all.

In 1956, an American Heart Association (AHA) fund-raiser was aired on all three major networks. The Master of Ceremonies interviewed, among others, Irving Page and Jeremiah Stamler of the AHA and researcher Ancel Keys. Panellists presented the lipid hypothesis as the cause of the heart disease epidemic and launched the Prudent Diet, one in which corn oil, margarine, chicken and cold cereal replaced butter, lard, beef and eggs.

The television campaign was not an unqualified success because one of the panellists, Dr Dudley White, disputed his colleagues at the AHA. Dr White noted that heart disease in the form of myocardial infarction was non-existent in 1900 when egg consumption was three times what it was in 1956 and when corn oil was unavailable.

When pressed to support the Prudent Diet, Dr White replied:

See here, I began my practice as a cardiologist in 1921 and I never saw an MI patent until 1928. Back in the MI-free days before 1920 the fats were butter and lard, and I think that we would all benefit from the kind of diet that we had at a time when no one had ever heard the word ‘corn’ oil.

In 1957, Dr Norman Jolliffe, Director of the Nutrition Bureau of the New York Health Department, initiated the Anti-Coronary Club in which selected businessmen, ranging in age from 40 to 59 years, were placed on the Prudent Diet. Club members used corn oil and margarine instead of butter, cold breakfast cereals instead of eggs and chicken, and fish instead of beef.

An ad in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) described Wesson oil as a “cholesterol depressant”. Mazola advertisements assured the public that “science finds corn oil important to your health”. Medical journal ads recommended Fleishmann’s unsalted margarine for patients with high blood pressure.

The American Medical Association (AMA) at first opposed the commercialisation of the lipid hypothesis and warned that

The anti-fat, anti-cholesterol fad is not just foolish and futile…it also carries some risk.

The American Heart Association, however, was committed. In 1961, the AHA published its first dietary guidelines aimed at the public. The authors, Irving Page, Ancel Keys, Jeremiah Stamler and Frederick Stare, called for the substitution of polyunsaturates for saturated fat, even though Keys, Stare and Page had all previously noted in published papers that the increase in CHD was paralleled by increasing consumption of vegetable oils. In fact, in a 1956 paper, Keys had suggested that the increasing use of hydrogenated vegetable oils might be the underlying cause of the CHD epidemic.1

It was in the same year, 1966, that the results of Dr Jolliffe’s Anti-Coronary Club experiment were published in JAMA. Those on the Prudent Diet of corn oil, margarine, fish, chicken and cold cereal had an average serum cholesterol of 220, compared to 250 in the meat-and-potatoes control group.

However, the study authors were obliged to note that there were eight deaths from heart disease among Dr Jolliffe’s Prudent Diet group, and none among those who ate meat three times a day. Dr Jolliffe was dead by this time. He succumbed in 1961 from a vascular thrombosis, although the obituaries listed the cause of death as “complications from diabetes”.

Judging from both food data and turn-of-the-century cookbooks, the American diet in 1900 was a rich one, with at least 35 to 40% of calories coming from fats, mostly dairy fats in the form of butter, cream, whole milk, and also eggs. Salad dressing recipes usually called for egg yolks or cream; only occasionally for olive oil. Lard or tallow served for frying.

Rich dishes like head cheese and scrapple contributed additional saturated fats during an era when cancer and heart disease were rare. Butter substitutes made up only a small portion of the American diet, and these margarines were blended from coconut oil, animal tallow and lard – all rich in natural saturates.

In 1909, Procter & Gamble acquired the US rights to a British patent on making liquid vegetable oils solid at room temperature. The process was used on both cotton-seed oil and lard to give “better physical properties”, to create shortenings that did not melt as easily on hot days.

When one hydrogen atom is moved to the other side of the fatty acid molecule during hydrogenation, the ability of living cells to make reactions at the site is compromised or altogether lost. Trans fatty acids are sufficiently similar to natural fats that the body readily incorporates them into the cell membrane; once there, their altered chemical structure creates havoc with thousands of necessary chemical reactions – everything from energy provision to prostaglandin production.

After the Second World War, ‘improvements’ made it possible to plasticise highly unsaturated oils from corn and soybeans. New catalysts allowed processors to ‘selectively hydrogenate’ the kinds of fatty acids found in soy and canola oils – those with three double bonds.

Called ‘partial hydrogenation’, this new method allowed processors to replace cotton-seed oil with more unsaturated corn and soybean oils in margarines and shortenings. This spurred a meteoric rise in soybean production from virtually nothing in 1900 to 70 million tons in 1970, surpassing corn production. Today, soy oil dominates the market and is used in almost 80% of all hydrogenated oils.

The particular mix of fatty acids in soy oil results in shortenings containing about 40% transfats – an increase of about 5% over cotton-seed oil and 15% over corn oil. Canola oil, processed from a hybrid form of rape-seed, is particularly rich in fatty acids containing three double bonds and can contain as much as 50% trans fats.

Most of the trans isomers in modern hydrogenated fats are new to the human physiology. By the early 1970s, a number of researchers had expressed concern about their presence in the American diet, noting that the increasing use of hydrogenated fats had paralleled the increase in both heart disease and cancer.

Although the AHA had committed itself to the lipid hypothesis, concerns about hydrogenated vegetable oils were sufficiently great to warrant the inclusion of the following statement in the organisation’s 1968 diet heart statement:

Partial hydrogenation of polyunsaturated fats results in the formation of trans forms which are less effective than cis, cis forms in lowering cholesterol concentrations. It should be noted that many currently available shortenings and margarines are partially hydrogenated and may contain little polyunsaturated fat of the natural cis, cis form.

While 150,000 copies of the statement were printed, they were never distributed. The shortening industry objected strongly, and a researcher named Fred Mattson of Procter & Gamble convinced Campbell Moses, medical director of the AHA, to remove it.

That did not prevent the American Heart Association calling for “modified and ordinary foods” useful for the purpose of facilitating dietary changes to newfangled oils away from traditional fats. These foods, said the AHA literature, should be made available to the consumer, “…reasonably priced and easily identified by appropriate labeling. Any existing legal and regulatory barriers to the marketing of such foods should be removed.”

The man who made it possible to remove any “existing legal and regulatory barriers” was Peter Barton Hutt, a food lawyer for the prestigious Washington, DC, law firm of Covington and Burling. Hutt once stated: “Food law is the most wonderful field of law that you can possibly enter.” After representing the edible oil industry, he temporarily left his law firm to become general counsel for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1971.

The regulatory barrier to foods useful to the purpose of changing American consumption patterns was the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which stated:

“…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods that they are expecting… [and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labelled as an ‘imitation’.”

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act had been signed into law partly in response to consumer concerns about the adulteration of ordinary foodstuffs. Chief among the products with a tradition of suffering competition from imitation products were fats and oils.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain reports on a conversation overheard between a New Orleans cottonseed oil purveyor and a Cincinnati margarine drummer. New Orleans boasts of selling deodorised cottonseed oil as olive oil in bottles with European labels.

We turn out the whole thing – clean from the word go – in our factory in New Orleans… We are doing a ripping trade, too.” The man from Cincinnati reports that his factories are turning out oleomargarine by the thousands of tons, an imitation that “you can’t tell from butter”. He gloats at the thought of market domination.

“You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you won’t find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with, in any hotel in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, outside of the biggest cities… And we can sell it so dirt cheap that the whole country has got to take it … butter don’t stand any show – there ain’t any chance for competition. Butter’s had its day – and from this out, butter goes to the wall.

“There’s more money in oleomargarine than – why, you can’t imagine the business we do.”

In the tradition of Mark Twain’s riverboat hucksters, Peter Barton Hutt guided the FDA through the legal and congressional hoops to the establishment in 1973 of the FDA “Imitation” policy which attempted to provide for “advances in food technology” and give “manufacturers relief from the dilemma of either complying with an outdated standard or having to label their new products as ‘imitation’… [since] …such products are not necessarily inferior to the traditional foods for which they may be substituted”.

Hutt considered the word ‘imitation’ to be oversimplified and inaccurate – “potentially misleading to consumers”. The new regulations defined ‘inferiority’ as any reduction in content of an essential nutrient that is present at a level of two per cent or more of the US Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA).

The new ‘imitation’ policy meant that imitation sour cream, made with vegetable oil and fillers like guar gum and carrageenan, need not be labelled ‘imitation’ as long as artificial vitamins were added to bring macronutrient levels up to the same amounts as those in real sour cream.

These new regulations were adopted without the consent of Congress, continuing the trend instituted under Nixon in which the White House would use the FDA to promote certain social agendas through government food policies. They had the effect of increasing the lobbying clout of special-interest groups such as the edible oil industry, and short-circuiting public participation in the regulatory process.

It allowed food processing innovations, regarded as ‘technological improvements’ by manufacturers, to enter the marketplace without the onus of economic fraud that might be engendered by greater consumer awareness and congressional supervision.

They ushered in the era of ersatz foodstuffs, convenient counterfeit products – weary, stale, flat and immensely profitable.

In 1976, the FDA established the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status for hydrogenated soybean oil.

A report in the Journal of American Oil Chemists – which the McGovern Committee did not use – showed that animal fat consumption had declined from 104 grams per person per day in 1909 to 97 grams per day in 1972, while vegetable fat intake had increased from a mere 21 grams to almost 60 grams.

Total per-capita fat consumption had increased over the period, but this increase was mostly due to an increase in unsaturated fats from vegetable oils – with 50% of the increase coming from liquid vegetable oils and about 41% from margarines made from vegetable oils.

Dr Mary Enig analysed the USDA data that the McGovern Committee had used and concluded that they showed a strong positive correlation with total fat and vegetable fat and an essentially strong negative correlation or no correlation with animal fat to total cancer deaths, breast and colon cancer mortality and breast and colon cancer incidence – in other words, use of vegetable oils seemed to predispose to cancer, and animal fats seemed to protect against cancer.

She noted that the analysts for the committee had manipulated the data in inappropriate ways in order to obtain mendacious results. Enig submitted her findings to the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), in May 1978, and her article was published in FASEB’s Federation Proceedings in July of the same year – an unusually quick turnaround. The assistant editor, responsible for accepting the article, died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.

Enig’s paper noted that the correlations pointed a finger at trans fatty acids and called for further investigation. Enig’s paper sent alarm bells through the industry. In early 1979 she received a visit from S. F. Reipma of the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers. Short, bald and pompous, Reipma was visibly annoyed. He explained that both his association and the Institute for Shortening and Edible Oils (ISEO) kept careful watch to prevent articles like Enig’s from appearing in the literature.

Enig’s paper should never have been published, he said. He thought that ISEO was “watching out”. “We left the barn door open,” he said, “and the horse got out.”

Reipma also challenged Enig’s use of the USDA data, claiming that it was in error. He knew it was in error, he said, “because we give it to them”.

John Bailar, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute pointed out that the correlations between vegetable oil consumption and cancer were not the same as evidence of causation, and warned against changing current dietary components in the hope of preventing cancer in the future – which is, of course, exactly what the McGovern Committee did.

In reply, Enig and her colleagues noted that although the National Cancer Institute (NCI) had provided them with faulty cancer data, this had no bearing on the statistics relating to trans consumption and did not affect the gist of their argument – that the correlation between vegetable fat consumption, especially trans fat consumption, was sufficient to warrant a more thorough investigation. The problem was that very little investigation was being done.

Enig’s own research, published in her 1984 doctoral dissertation, indicated that trans fats interfered with enzyme systems that neutralised carcinogens and increased enzymes that potentiated carcinogens.

Part two of the Secrets of the Edible Oil Industry can be found here.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Roxana Feher

    Just wondering if you are aware that the three links on this page that take you to the second power or the full article written by Mary and Nancy Fallon take you to Dr. mercola’s page.

    By the way praises for this article. Thank you for contributing. Just watched a long YouTube by Nancy Fallon on the same topic.

    1. Roxana Feher

      Correction, “Sally Fallon”
      Also my apologies because I am using Siri, what I was trying to get across is that the links you provided for the full article actually lead you to Dr. Mercola’ site.

      Best regards

  2. fiona

    Thank you for taking the time to compile this. I deal in my work with disability organisations and I have kept coming across illnesses that did not exist as documented disease, for example MS & Muscular Dystrophy until the 1860s. Previous to this diseases werepredominantly sanitation related, We now have a swathe of autopmmune disease and there has to be a dietary link. I am wiser after reading your article. Thank you.

  3. Sang Steinberg

    Great Post, I was looking for this info for quite a while, thank you for taking the time to post this informative post. I am Subscribing to your blog.

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