Is Lard and Butter More Healthy Than Vegetable Oils?

Last Updated on January 24, 2022 by Shaun Snapp

Executive Summary

  • For many decades vegetable oils have been presented as more healthy than saturated fats like lard and butter.
  • How accurate is this claim?

Introduction

The US dietary guidelines have proposed for many decades that not only should people minimize fat, but that they should stay away from saturated fats.

This article does not yet take a position either way but presents the argument for saturated fat not being bad for health. 

Our References for This Article

If you want to see our references for this article and related Brightwork articles, visit this link.

Nina Teichholz makes the argument that the support for vegetable oils and against animal fats lacks evidence and that this false research supports nutritional guidelines. 

This is a very instructive video.

This video is an interview with Nina Teicholz.

In this video, Nina Teicholz describes the fact that the epidemiological studies are what supported the hypothesis that red meat was unhealthy. 

The Rise in Heart Disease in the 20th Century

As early as the late nineteenth century, some researchers were beginning to wonder if animal fats, in particular the cholesterol in such fats, might be responsible for heart disease, since cholesterol is a major component of atherosclerotic plaque. The idea slowly gained ground among some researchers in the 1930s and ’40s as the rate of heart attacks among adult males grew. It had—and continues to have—a certain commonsense plausibility. Since plaque clogs arteries “like hot grease down a cold drain,” in Teicholz’s vivid phrase, and stops blood flow, triggering heart attacks, eating more of the stuff plaque is made of must increase the risk of heart disease. But this was by no means the consensus among researchers and nutritionists, most of whom were publishing and publicizing studies on how children raised on a diet rich in meat, eggs, and dairy products grew taller and stronger than those who weren’t.

About the same time, a fundamental change in the American diet was under way, one Teicholz considers especially deleterious: the increasing use of vegetable oils from corn, soybeans, rapeseed, and cottonseeds. For most of human history, vegetable oils were not used for cooking, for the simple reason that (with the exception of olive oil) they turned rancid quickly at room temperature. As recently as 1910, American housewives cooked almost exclusively with butter and animal fat. Vegetable oil was used largely to make soaps, tallow, lubricants, and resins; it was barely considered edible.

Then, in 1911, Procter & Gamble patented the process of hydrogenating vegetable oil—that is, adding hydrogen atoms to the lipid molecule, which allowed the oil to be stored at room temperature without going bad. The first big commercial application of this innovation was the creation of Crisco, which stayed firm and fresh at room temperature, just like lard or butter. – Washington Monthly

This brings up a critical question, which is the rise of heart disease. Before moving on with the coverage of Nina Teicholz’s arguments, it made sense to check on the rise in heart disease in the 20th century. The following quotation explains this rise in heart disease.

Heart disease was an uncommon cause of death in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. By mid-century it had become the commonest cause. After peaking in the mid-1960s, the number of heart disease deaths began a marked decline that has persisted to the present. The increase in heart disease deaths from the early 20th century until the 1960s was due to an increase in the prevalence of coronary atherosclerosis with resultant coronary heart disease, as documented by autopsy studies. This increase was associated with an increase in smoking and dietary changes leading to an increase in serum cholesterol levels. In addition, the ability to diagnose acute myocardial infarction with the aid of the electrocardiogram increased the recognition of coronary heart disease before death. The substantial decrease in coronary heart disease deaths after the mid-1960s is best explained by the decreased incidence, and case fatality rate, of acute myocardial infarction and a decrease in out-of-hospital sudden coronary heart disease deaths. These decreases are very likely explained by a decrease in coronary atherosclerosis due to primary prevention, and a decrease in the progression of nonobstructive coronary atherosclerosis to obstructive coronary heart disease due to efforts of primary and secondary prevention. In addition, more effective treatment of patients hospitalized with acute myocardial infarction has led to a substantial decrease in deaths due to acute myocardial infarction. It is very likely that the 20th century was the only century in which heart disease was the most common cause of death in America. – NCBI

This quote does not exactly explain what caused the rise and then somewhat decline of heart disease in the US.

One of the clues of what causes heart disease is found in the discrepancy between blacks and whites. Blacks are much more likely to die from heart disease than whites or any other racial group.

Dr. Ancel Keys

At around this point in Teicholz’s tale, a second villain—after the vegetable oil industry—enters the picture. He is Dr. Ancel Benjamin Keys, a pathologist with advanced degrees in biology and physiology who worked at the University of Minnesota. Brilliant and charismatic, with a crusading streak and a knack for networking, Keys had managed during World War II to get himself appointed as an adviser to the secretary of defense, a post from which he developed meals for the U.S. Army called K Rations—the “K” stood for “Keys.” By the early 1950s, Keys had become convinced that the consumption of animal-based fat was the key cause of heart disease.

He introduced his thesis, later dubbed the “diet-heart hypothesis,” in a 1953 paper that purportedly showed a close correlation between fat intake and death rates from heart disease in six countries. The paper generated tremendous buzz, and Keys expected to make a big splash when he presented it at a World Health Organization conference in Geneva. He did—just not quite the way he had anticipated. Jacob Yerushalmy, professor of biostatics at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that Keys had chosen to study only countries that would support his thesis. He didn’t account for countries like West Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and, of course, France—where the consumption of diets high in saturated fats did not translate to ill heart health. Keys was humiliated and furious.

After the hearings, it fell to a McGovern staffer named Nick Mottern to research and write a report with dietary recommendations for the public. A former labor beat reporter and a “conscientious progressive,” Mottern had a jaundiced view of corporate power, especially the National Cattlemen’s Association, whose arrogant lobbyists regularly strode through the South Dakota senator’s offices. Mottern had no background in science or nutrition, however, so he turned for guidance to a Harvard nutrition professor and devotee of Keys’s diet-heart hypothesis, Mark Hegsted (Keys had by then retired).

The report Mottern and Hegsted produced, Dietary Goals for the United States, recommended lowering overall fat calories from 40 percent to 30 percent and saturated fats to 10 percent. In Mottern’s eyes, writes Teicholz, he was fighting a battle that “pitched the virtuous, AHA-endorsed low-fat diet against the debased meat and dairy industries.” He was, by all appearances, ignorant of the fact that much of the research he relied on had been quietly paid for by the vegetable oil and processed foods industries.

Unfortunately for Hegsted, the task force wound up concluding two things: that the link between fat consumption and heart disease was a tenuous one, and that “the evidence condemning saturated fat was not persuasive,” writes Teicholz. The main problem, the task force explained, was that nearly all the evidence supporting the diet-heart hypothesis had come from observational studies of populations. Such “epidemiological” studies can establish correlation but, because they don’t control for different variables, not causation. For that, clinical trials are needed. But virtually no clinical trials on the diet-heart link had yet been done.

Still, the task force did not affirmatively say that reducing dietary saturated fat would cause harm. Hegsted took that as a green light to proceed, on a tenuous “better safe than sorry” logic. Hegsted’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans formed the basis of the USDA’s subsequent “Food Pyramids.” “Despite having grown from the work of a single congressional staffer and his single academic advisor and despite the lack of endorsement from nutrition experts,” writes Teicholz, “these are now the most broadly recognized food guidelines in the United States.”

Once government put its official stamp of approval on the diet-heart hypothesis, the American public dutifully complied, cutting its intake of saturated fats and shifting to the “low-fat,” carbohydrate-rich alternatives with which the processed food industry helpfully stocked the nation’s supermarkets. At about the same time, obesity levels skyrocketed, which Teicholz sees as no coincidence. Academics who continued questioning the anti-saturated-fat consensus became professional outcasts. Their funding dried up. Invitations to conferences no longer arrived. Journals would no longer publish their work. – Washington Monthly

This video explains how vegetable oils replaced animal fats. 

Conclusion

This is a very important question as so many people take vegetable oils.

This is a preliminary article, and we have not yet taken a position on this. One thing that bodes in Teicholz’s favor are the following:

  • It has already been proven that the “low fat” diet that was promoted for several decades was based upon erroneous information. Fat is one of the three components of food (the other being protein and carbohydrates). Going “low fat” has in most circumstances only meant going “high carbohydrate.” And in many cases, this meant taking the eye off sugar consumption.
  • Margarine and other hydrogenated oils have been proven to be less healthy than butter.
  • Lowering cholesterol through taking statins does not improve heart incidents, which is something I cover in the article Things Western Medicine Got and Continues to Get Wrong.

If it is true that saturated fats are also not bad for health, this will be a complete overturning of the previous regime of nutrition advice. We will add more to this article in the future.