This week I read an interesting article about nutrition science, or perhaps more specifically, nutrition scientists. It explained how the theory that eating saturated fat, and therefore having a high-cholesterol diet, increases your risk of heart disease has never been proven through rigorous study. Because human biochemistry is much more complex than just, “what goes into your body remains in your body” there can even be an inverse correlation between cholesterol intake and blood cholesterol, as the body regulates the level to compensate for high or low consumption.
At the same time as the “saturated fat as the major dietary cause of heart disease” theory was emerging, another theory about the negative effects of sugar in our diets was also being explored, but the politics of science and the personalities of the scientists involved meant that this research was never widely publicised or included in nutrition guidelines. Instead, particularly in in the US and the UK, and following government advice, people attempted to reduce saturated fat in their diets, generally replacing it with simple carbohydrates. A few decades later, we have an obesity crisis.
Part of the research which “proved” that a high-fat diet caused heart disease was a study involving seven nations which showed that in countries where people had a high saturated fat consumption, like the US, people were having heart attacks right, left and centre, while in Japan, where intake is very low, so is the rate of heart disease. What the researchers omitted to include, however, were countries like France, where red meat, cheese and cream are very much on the menu, but the rate of heart disease remains relatively low.
With all of this information now coming to light, along with research into the effects of a high-sugar diet on our bodies' ability to regulate our weight and our appetite, governments are now trying to reduce people's sugar intake with measures such as tax on fizzy drinks.
However, while this is not a bad thing, I don't believe it's the solution to the problem either. Tax sugar, and manufacturers of processed foods will just replace it with something else which will probably be worse. (Remember how we all thought it was a good idea to replace the natural saturated fat in butter with liquid fats that had been artificially hardened into supposedly healthy “spreads” … until it turned out that it really wasn't?) And as long as we continue eating foods where natural flavours have been replaced by inferior substitutes which make the food “more-ish” because it seems to taste good but isn't quite as satisfying as the real thing, we will continue to get fat. Meanwhile, although my mother-in-law's jam, made with raspberries grown in her husband's garden and slowly ripened by the Breton sunshine, may contain a lot of sugar, the high quality of the product is undeniable.
If in doubt, this Facebook meme that has just appeared on my timeline may be good advice!
The French haven't retained a healthier diet than many other western nations by rigorously applying the results of scientific study to carefully produced ready meals. Rather, a combination of respect for local agriculture and a deeply-ingrained love food and the pleasure it can bring means that they have continued to eat genuinely high-quality food more consistently and for longer than some of the rest of us. It's not foolproof – Big Food in France does its best to pass off its products as local and artisanal, and people with full-time jobs and no time to do a weekday market shop do turn to Carrefour deliveries and Picard just like anywhere else. (And you only have to participate in an average apéritif here to realise that not everything here is deliciously natural and healthy.) But the timing here has been better than it has been in other countries, in the sense that France hasn't thrown away its traditions only, too late, to have their value backed up by scientific study. Let's hope that we can hang on to them, and ditch the Apéricubes instead.