Bee Wilson tells us to eat butter for our health

How a US farmers' lobby deceived us about polyunsaturated fats

"Why aren't the French dropping like flies?" This was the title of an article written ten years ago by the American food journalist Jeffrey Steingarten to address what became known as "le paradoxe francais". What Steingarten had observed was actually less of a paradox, more of a contradiction. Why, if, as health experts claimed, a high-cholesterol diet caused heart attacks, did the butter-munching French have such a low rate of deaths from coronary heart disease?

The French paradox still hasn't really been explained by scientists, and meanwhile a further, and if anything, more unsettling anomaly in our thinking about fats has been largely ignored, both by government health advisers and by most of the media. We might call it the Filipino paradox, except that it's less of a paradox, more of a disgrace.

For years, we have been told that "too much" saturated fat contributes to heart disease, hypertension, strokes and cancer. So how is it that the people of the Philippines have strikingly low rates of all these diseases, even though they consume large quantities of coconut oil, the most saturated of all the edible fats? Coconut oil is 92 per cent saturated. Yet as the food researcher and chef Pia Lim-Castillo recently explained: "People who eat coconut oil in place of other vegetable oils are amazingly free from the degenerative diseases which are so common in the west. They not only have ideal body weight based on the standard body mass index but they live longer as well."

I don't wish to trespass on John Pilger's territory, but the western public is mostly unaware of this not merely because of the uncertain state of scientific knowledge on the subject, but also because of deliberate misinformation from those with vested interests in promoting polyunsaturated vegetable oils as a "healthy alternative". The main villains in the US have been the bountifully subsidised American soybean farmers, who backed a huge propaganda war in the Eighties against "tropical fats" such as coconut oil and palm oil.

Playing on a xenophobic distrust of alien foods, this campaign convinced the American public that they would be healthier if they ate patriotic polyunsaturated soybean oil. The public was never told that: a) soybean oil is usually partially hydrogenated, resulting in unhealthy trans fatty acids or b) more crucially, that polyunsaturated fats, home-grown or not, may well contribute to cancer.

A scholarly article by Barry Groves points out that over the past two decades, since we began accepting advice to eat more polyunsaturates in Britain, the incidence of cancer, as well as of obesity and diabetes, has risen dramatically. As early as 1980, the Oncology Times published research showing that mice fed polyunsaturated fats were more likely to develop melanomas. In 1991, two independent studies in the US and Canada linked polyunsaturated vegetable oils to cancer, especially breast cancer. The question shouldn't be why the Filipinos aren't dropping like flies, but why we are.

When you heat them, polyunsaturated fats become even dodgier nutritionally, because they oxidise much more easily than saturated fats, creating free radicals, which have a damaging effect on body cells. Coconut oil, that elixir of the tropics, has a peroxidation level of only 32.48. Butter comes second at 142.12. Olive oil is quite high, at 362.80 (save it for using green and raw), but still nothing like as high as our old friend polyunsaturated soy oil, which comes in at a whopping 608.00, making it positively hazardous to cook with.

How encouraging it is to think that, contrary to the dicta of the cheerless Flora lobby, good food and good health may go together after all. Eat butter, live long and prosper.