Last month the government launched the ‘Responsibility Deal Saturated Fat Reduction Pledge’ which promises to remove ‘one and a half Olympic size swimming pools of saturated fat’ from the nation’s diet’ (who writes these press releases?). We are told that various food manufacturers and retailers have willingly signed up to the pledge and will aim to reduce the saturated fat content in their products to make them ‘healthier.’

I really don’t know where to begin with this one, as it is all so depressing on so many levels. The press release states that ‘Cutting the amount of saturated fat we eat by just fifteen per cent could prevent around 2,600 premature deaths every year from conditions such as cardiovascular disease, heart disease and stroke.’ Ok, first let’s stop there. This first statement assumes that saturated fat is the cause of such diseases. This is a view that has been increasingly rejected over many years. See for instance the ground-breaking article by Gary Taubes What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? (2002) and pop over to the Resources page for more excellent clips and articles. The demonization of natural saturated fats – meat, coconut oil, butter – is beginning to look at least erroneous and at worst dangerous. Especially in terms of brain health, the reduction in saturated fats and the increase in carbohydrates in the diet over the last few decades could be disastrous.

It then goes on to state that ‘One in six male deaths and one in nine female deaths are from coronary heart disease – this is why it’s critical that we challenge the way we eat and that we all make changes where we can.’ Once again they link worrying heart disease figures back to saturated fats with the implication that cutting such fats will reduce overall deaths by CHD. Where is the conclusive proof of this?

It adds that companies are ‘…leading the way to give their customers healthier products and lower fat alternatives.’ The linking of ‘healthier products’ with ‘low-fat’ implies an inextricable link between the two. Who says that low-fat products are healthier? Where is the proof of this? Butter healthier than margarine? Low-fat (sugary) yoghurt healthier than full-fat Greek? Low-fat coconut milk healthier than full-fat? Just type in ‘low-fat’ on a supermarket shopping site and then look at the lists of ingredients in these foods. Many products have been pumped full of sugars, artificial sweeteners (Saccharin, Aspartame) and flavourings to make them more palatable after the fat has been removed. How can these be healthier than natural, full-fat foods?

Next we have a list of some of the proposed changes that producers and retailers will be making:

  • Nestlé – which will remove 3,800 tonnes of saturated fat from over a billion Kit Kat bars per year by reformulating the recipe
  • Tesco – which will remove 32 tonnes of saturated fat from products such as breadsticks
  • Morrisons – which will be reformulating its spreads range to reduce saturated fat, this will remove approximately 50 tonnes
  • Aramark – which will increase the amount of 1% fat milk it supplies across its sites and increase the training it gives to its chefs
  • Cricketer Farm – which will help one retailer remove 1.5 tonnes of saturated fat by switching to their half fat cheese

So let’s just re-cap: in order to combat heart disease in the UK, we should be eating low-fat Kit-Kats, low-fat breadsticks, low-fat margarines, and low-fat milk and cheese. Is this for real?

The statement then explains how additional companies will also be joining this initiative by reducing saturated fats, changing ingredients, promoting ‘healthier’ menus and generally helping us to eat the ‘right’ foods: ‘reformulating recipes so they include less fat, and introducing new products with lower fat.’ Isn’t this what they have been doing for the past 40 years? Urging us to eat low-fat foods and lecturing people about what/what not to eat. Take a look around – it hasn’t worked! Something is wrong with the low-fat, high carbohydrate approach and yet they still regurgitate the same old line.

On talking about the commitments, Chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network, Professor Susan Jebb said: ‘They recognise that too much saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels and cause heart disease and premature deaths which is why it’s fantastic that so many companies have committed to helping people cut down on their consumption.’ Not so fast! There are quite a few people that would disagree with Professor Jebb. One such person is Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra. It was great to see him flying the flag for good fats in the wake of the government’s press release and generally disputing the lipid hypothesis. I missed the debate on Jeremy Vine between Dr Malhotra and an NHS spokesman, but was reliably informed that the NHS man failed to provide a convincing rebuttal to Dr Malhotra’s argument.

In addition, this article in the Daily Mail about the controversy was a refreshing change and manages to quote an excellent trio of Malcolm Kendrick, Robert Lustig and Timothy Noakes.

The Telegraph printed a similar article but just can’t help gravitating back towards a cautionary note, warning viewers to indulge in no more than ‘a wee bit’ of steak. It also unhelpfully lumps together ‘butter, fatty meats and pastries’ when talking about saturated fats and warns that when it comes to bread, our daily allowance of fat permits ‘one slice spread with a thick layer’. Perhaps things might improve if we cut the bread out and didn’t worry about eating the butter, but Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College, London might disagree, stating that ‘It is sensible to avoid fatty meat dishes, choose reduced-fat milk and eat cheese in moderation. Cream is best kept for special occasions.” That’s me done for then.

I did note that Dr Melhota also called for the following measures to be implemented: “a sugary drinks tax, banning junk food advertising to children, ensuring compulsory nutritional standards in schools and hospitals… “. I’ve got to say this worries me. I doubt that schools and hospitals would be singing from the same hymn sheet as Dr Melhotra regarding saturated fats and rejecting decades of advice from their government funders doesn’t strike me as an option. I would add that it is the government poking its nose into what people eat that caused this mess in the first place, not just in the UK but also in the US (George McGovern’s Dietary Goals for the United States for a start). I also think that a change will come not through taxing or banning foods, nor from governments, authorities or quangos, food manufacturers or indeed any government or industry funded organisation to tackle obesity but instead from the grass roots, from individuals who choose to ignore the conventional advice and go looking for themselves. Unfortunately that takes time, and goodness knows how many people will suffer in the interim.

As for me, I’m off for a dip in that swimming pool (only kidding)…

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