A controversial new Canadian cookbook, titled Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes, is taking the low-fat diet to task, and asking if many of society's current health woes are not actually the result of our reduced intake of butter, lard, suet, chicken skin and other animal fats.
"You can't be alive without fat," says author Jennifer McLagan, whose 2005 cookbook Bones won a James Beard award.
She argues that by having drastically reduced our intake of animal fats over the past 30 years, people have not only deprived themselves of fat's delicious flavour, but also many of its health benefits.
"It gives us energy. It boosts the immune system," she says. "Some fats have antimicrobial properties. Others can lower bad cholesterol. There are vitamins that are only fat-soluble. Your brain is mainly made of fat and cholesterol, as are the membranes of your cells. It helps you digest protein, which is why you should eat chicken with crispy skin or well-marbled steak."
Fat's bad rap
McLagan, who lives in Toronto but grew up in Melbourne, Australia, says fat's bad rap came from faulty studies conducted after World War II by the American nutritionist Ansel Keys.
Does fat get a bad rap? Have your say.
Keys pioneered dietary studies in the 1940s — most notably the Coronary Heart Disease among Minnesota Business and Professional Men report and the Framingham Study — which formed the basis of his theory that high intake of animal fat led to cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Over the following decades, he conducted the Seven Countries Study, which looked for connections between diet and heart disease in Italy, the Greek islands, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Finland, Japan and the United States.
His published conclusions postulated that diets high in animal fats caused heart disease, but his findings have been widely challenged and subsequent studies surveying wider or different samples have not produced correlative results.
'No one has ever been able to prove the supposed link between a diet high in animal fats and CVD. That's why we have the French paradox and other such people, like the Inuit, who eat a lot of animal fat and who do not suffer high rates of heart disease.'— Jennifer McLagan
"Keys selected the stats that fit his premise," states McLagan. "No one has ever been able to prove the supposed link between a diet high in animal fats and CVD. That's why we have the French paradox and other such people, like the Inuit, who eat a lot of animal fat and who do not suffer high rates of heart disease."
This rise of bad fats
Keys's findings were adopted as gospel by the U.S. Congress in 1977 and that, says McLagan, was when problems really began.
"The U.S. Senate pronounced that animal fat was bad for people's health," she said, "and that people should cut down the saturated fats in their diets. That's when the big move came to use margarine and vegetable shortenings."
Such products are polyunsaturated fats that have been hydrogenated to increase their stability and lengthen their shelf life. The hydrogenation process, however, also produces trans fats.
"These trans fats are difficult for our body to process," McLagan writes in her book, "so instead it stores them as fat. They adversely affect our cholesterol levels ... and they interfere with insulin production, promoting diabetes and obesity."
In 2002, the Institute of Medicine, in Washington, D.C., declared that there is no safe level for trans fat in food. Trans fats have since been banned, or are strictly regulated, by numerous governments around the world.
But even though trans fats have been eliminated from many foods that once held them, vegetable fats, says McLagan, still present serious health risks.
"At the turn of the last century, lard was the No. 1 fat in the kitchen," she states. "Now it's vegetable oils, and most such oils are very high in omega-6."
Along with omega-3, omega-6 is what's known as an essential fatty acid (EFA) that the human body requires but cannot produce on its own. People have to acquire such fats through their diets, and animal fats, especially from ruminants, are an excellent source of omega-3.
As McLagan writes, "An ideal [consumption] ratio would be around two to one - twice as much omega-6 as omega-3 - but by replacing animal fats with vegetable oils ... many of us now consume up to 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3. An excess of omega-6 has been linked to cancer, heart disease, liver damage, learning disorders, weight gain, and malfunction of the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems."
Furthermore, she adds, too much omega-6 in our diet inhibits our intake of omega-3.
What's the solution? A return to eating animal fats, argues McLagan.
'The low-fat craze has been going on since the 1970s, but we haven't gotten any thinner or any healthier.'— Jennifer McLagan
"The low-fat craze has been going on since the 1970s," she says, "but we haven't gotten any thinner or any healthier."
By providing recipes for everything from making your own butter, to baking pastry with leaf lard (which comes from around the pig's kidneys), to making dishes such as Bacon Mayonnaise, Duck Confit, and Traditional Christmas Pudding (with suet), McLagan says she hopes her book will revitalize a very tasty, once crucial — and apparently quite healthy — food ingredient.
"Remember," she says, "we were eating animal fats for thousands and thousands of years. If it had been that bad for us we probably would not have made it to this point in time."
Shaun Smith is freelance writer, food critic and former chef in Toronto.