Does saturated fat really cause heart disease?

We’re not eating enough margarine and it really is starting to bother people who make it. According to Dairy Australia’s 2009 report, butter (and butter-like substances) have steadily increased from 30 percent of the spread market in 2001 to 43 percent in 2009. And the outlook to 2012 is even rosier with expected growth of almost 10 percent.

I blame MasterChef (and its ilk). You never see the latest quasi-celebrity cracking open a nice tub of marg do you? No, its great dollops of butter all the way. Of course it could just be that we’re getting wary of how many chemists were involved in creating the stuff we spread on our bread.

Goodman Fielder (the maker of Meadow Lea) has obviously decided not to take our growing disdain for manufactured spreads lying down. In the last few weeks a commercial has been airing featuring a smart young fellow by the name of Andrew Wilson chatting to us about the evils of eating butter.

Andrew ought to know what he’s talking about. He’s a cardiologist with the Department of Medicine, St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy, Melbourne. I know this because, not only does his mug appear regularly on the teev, he features on a website called Spread the Facts.

Andrew tells us that “as a cardiologist he understands what saturated fats can do to your child’s health,” and illustrates this with a graphic of a “child’s artery” filling with saturated fats from butter. He then goes on to suggest that we should switch to a margarine spread made with plant seeds (tight shot of plant seeds in doc’s hands), “because most contain at least 65% less saturated fat than butter.”

The website (and the ad) are bought to us by Goodman Fielder and both appear to be in some (nonspecific) way associated with the Australian Heart Foundation (if the constant use of their logo is anything to go by).

On my telly, whenever Andrew appears in an ad break, you can put money on the probability of an ad for Meadow Lea materialising an ad or two later in the break. The Meadow Lea ad features children gambolling in a field. Mother then enters and the voice-over points out that Meadow Lea is made from plant seeds (tight shot of mother’s hands holding plant seeds) which contains 65 percent less saturated fat than butter. Enough dots for you to join there?

All that authorititive advice (followed coincidentally by an ad for a product that fits the bill) should have any self-respecting parent hurtling towards the margarine section of the supermarket before Hermione and Jeremy’s arteries are irreversibly clogged.

The only problem with all of this is that the science doesn’t appear to match the advertising spin. A study to be published next month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that “there is no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with increased risk of [heart disease].” Huh? But didn’t Andrew show us pictures of children’s arteries being pumped full of saturated fat?

The study arrived at that conclusion after examining 21 previous studies of a total of 347,747 people. It was however supported by the National Dairy Council (who might like us to eat a little more butter).

Fortunately (for the suspiciously inclined), a comprehensive review (which has no dubious sources of funding) of the evidence was published in the British Medical Journal back in 2001.

The British review decided that despite decades of research (and thousands of people participating in randomized trials), there “is still only limited and inconclusive evidence” that the amount or type of fat you eat makes any difference to your chances of death by heart attack. Not exactly resounding support for the line being pushed by Andrew, the Heart Foundation and Goodman Fielder, now is it?

These results are quite a contrast to a review published by the American Heart Association (AHA) last August. That review summarised the available research on the relationship between sugar intake and cardiovascular health. It noted that “sugar intake appears to be associated with increased triglyceride levels, a known risk factor for coronary heart disease,” and concluded that the average American needed to dramatically reduce their sugar intake.

The AHA was so concerned they recommended that an adult male consume no more than 9 teaspoons (5 for women and 3 for kids) of added sugar a day (about the same as a can of soft drink or a large bowl of fruit muesli for the man). Even worse, alcohol had to be deducted from the allowance, so one full strength beer would reduce a man’s sugar quota to zero.

I can’t blame Goodman Fielder for having a go. They’re not a charity and they’ve got a product to sell in a market populated by mini-me MasterChefs. But why is a cardiologist fronting up and suggesting something that isn’t supported by the research? And why is the Heart Foundation in there helping them both out? Why aren’t the Australian Heart Foundation telling us what their American cousins know about sugar? Surely it’s not because no-one is paying them to – surely not?

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Belinda says:

    Thank you for singling out this insidious ad campaign! I saw it the other night, followed by the Meadow Lea ad, and it made so mad! The way they try and ram one view down your throat, freak you out about your children dying, and then ‘oops, here’s a randomly placed ad about margarine’ – it assumes we are all idiots. Unfortunately I guess many people are, or it wouldn’t work. What about the inflammatory effects of margarine? Any words on that Mr Cardiologist? Nope, didnt think so. Doctors selling out to promote health claims – a growing and and worrying trend.

  • Ravenwing says:

    When I saw the ad the other day, I had a sneaking suspicion there’d be an article about this from you.

    What made me mad was not the sequencing of ads (you come to expect that, really). It was the use of a stack of butter. Omigosh, that much butter goes through your arteries over the course of a year? Of course … it’s a WHOLE YEAR! A year’s worth of anything is going to look like a lot when you pile it together like that.

    A reasonable response would be to pile that same year’s worth of margerine (which will be the same size, mind you) next to an equivalent sized stack of labelled chemicals used in margerine.

  • Readers of David Gillespie’s blogs be interested to know that it is now more than two weeks since I first attempted to get David to reply to a series of questions in a comment about his blog entry titled ‘Attack of the Chocolatier’.

    My questions cut to the core of David’s treatment (or rather mistreatment) of the science that he claims underpins his book ‘Sweet Poison’. David hasn’t answered any of my questions.

    By refusing (or perhaps more appropriately not being able) to answer those questions, David is tacitly admitting that the science behind his book ‘Sweet Poison’ is fatally flawed.

    As I have demonstrated in other comments on the ‘Attack of the Chocolatier’ and in my Ockham’s Razor program (ABC Radio National) of 10 Jan 10, David Gillespie is not a reliable source of information on the health effects of fructose.

    The questions are:

    (i) In light of the evidence provided by Rosemary Stanton that there has either been no increase or a slight decline in food intake in the last 30 years (see my comment sent on January 29, 2010 at 8:48 PM), do you still believe that food intake has increased by 30% in Australia in the last three decades?

    (ii) Taking into account your claim that average Australian intake of fructose is about two-thirds the average intake in the US, and that the US intake accounts for 9-10% of total energy intake (references provided in my comment sent on January 29, 2010 at 10:10 PM) do you still claim that almost 20% of our energy intake is now derived from fructose?

    (iii) Noting that the authors of the 1985 paper by Reiser et al. [Am J Clin Nutr. 1985 Aug;42(2):242-51] refer (more than once) to a ‘… lack of relationship between the onset of the abnormalities and the type of dietary carbohydrate’, do you still claim that fructose consumption was the cause of severe heart conditions in four participants in that study?

    (iv) Noting that at least 19 human fructose-feeding studies were conducted after 1985 (references provided in my comment of January 30, 2010 at 6:02 PM) do you still claim that no further human studies were conducted following that date?

    (v) Noting that the World Health Organisation recommends that the maximum safe intake of added sugars is 10% of total energy (or rather just short of 10%); that the NHMRC dietary guideline is to ‘consume only moderate levels of sugars and foods containing added sugars’; that the American Heart Association sets safe upper levels of intake of 35 g of added sugar for men and 25 g for women, and that 12 of the 19 references to human studies conducted in the period 1985-2007 reported positive or, at worst, neutral effects attributable to fructose, do you still believe that added fructose is a poison in the diet at any dose?

    (vi) Given that the NHMRC in Australia and ACSM in the US (and other national health authorities) recognise the value of physical activity in weight control, do you still believe that physical activity has no role to play in weight control?

    (vii) Noting that the conclusion of the most recent meta-analysis (in the December 26 edition of Clinical Nutrition) concludes that ‘There is no support from the human literature for the hypothesis that sucrose may be physically addictive …’, do you still insist that fructose—the relevant component of sucrose in this context—is addictive in humans?

  • Susan says:

    Hi Chris, did you seem my most question on the ‘Attack of the Chocolatier’ blog. I sent it on the 20th of Feb. I really would like you to answer it. Susan.

  • Cat J B says:

    I’ve recently seen this ad, looked up Goodman Fielder…I know basically who they are….to see they are the biggest producer of this kind of junk on the Aussie market. Of course they’re going to spruik it and too many people will believe it unfortunately.

  • Luke McMahon says:

    There’s an article by the neurobiologist, Dr. Stephan Guyenet, at
    Dr. Guyenet conducts bench research on body fat regulation. In the interview he addresses some of the issues David wrote so well about in his post.

  • Cameron says:

    Hello All – Could not help myself – just had to email the Dr behind that butter ad. See below

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    I think it is about time you did some of your own research into the “saturated fats causes heart disease” theory – that is all it ever truly was, a theory. Pure logic dictates natural unprocessed foods are the key to health. Take the time to research Weston Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration – it makes it very clear sugar and white flour is the key to poor health. Take a look at the products in a supermarket – most of them contain one or both of these. While you are at it – take a look at Good Calories, Bad Calories by investigative New York Times reporter Gary Taubes. He spent many years doing proper research for this book. He also concludes saturated fats don’t case heart disease and never did. I personally have experimented on myself by eating huge amounts of saturated fats (you would cringe) for several months and saw improvements in my lipid profiles and cholesterol – Oh and then there is the “Cholesterol Myth” by Uffe Ravnskov, so cholesterol does not worry me either. In fact it is so important in the body that I believe people who lower it with harmful drugs are doing themselves a further disservice. So before you just preach what the medical profession has been teaching you – try to keep in mind where that information comes from, what is their motivation and what parts truly are based on science. After all – despite all this advice to avoid saturated fats people keep having more heart attacks don’t they? Imagine if the cholesterol theory sent us down the wrong path many years ago and since then it has just been assumed as gospel and left us in the totally wrong area for good health with no road to redemption. I challenge you to explore this properly starting with the above. Do proper research, cross reference like crazy and be mindful of who is the author of each piece. Make sure you prepare yourself for the shock because you may find yourself in a moral dilemma when you realise your key beliefs are not based on fact after all – and are exactly the opposite of what you should be teaching people. Don’t devote your heart to something that is wrong – it will make a mockery of your life’s work.
    From Spreadthefacts

  • I suggest taking a look at the following WRT fructose:

    (Sugar: the Bitter Truth; lecture by Robert Lustig)

    In fact, have a gander at the whole playlist I tossed together a few days ago for my own edification…

    (Fructose / Fat)

    You might also have a read of “The Sugar Fix” by Dr Richard J. Johnson:

    (The Sugar Fix: The High-Fructose Fallout That Is Making You Fat)

    It appears to come to much the same conclusions as Lustig and Gillespie.

    WRT dietary fats, I might also point toward a book by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn:

    (Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure)

    In it he details a study of patients (the worst of the worst heart disease sufferers) put on an ultra-low-fat diet (<10-15% fat) and the fact that not only did they stop the progression of heart disease, in many cases they actually REVERSED the disease, alleviating the crippling angina, restoring blood flow, and generally returning the patients to good health.

    So, it certainly seems there is something to be said for fats’ impact on patient health.

    Esselstyn also relates that fats’ deleterious effects on vasculature (the endothelium lining blood vessels) can be and has been demonstrated by controlling diet and administering a non-invasive BART (Brachial Artery Reactive Testing) procedure.

  • […] [1] David Gillespie. David Gillespie RSS. N.p., 17 Feb. 2010. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. […]

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