Lead, Margarine, and Unintended Consequences

Paul A. Offit, “Pandora’s Lab” excerpted from Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong (2017) in National Geographic, June 2017, 136-150

Having heard a lot about the Lead and Copper Rule, I’m still mulling over whether government regulations like the LCR, however well intended, do more harm or more good in protecting the public.  I recently came across an excerpt of Dr. Paul Offit’s 2017 book, Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, which tells the story of the government’s role in restricting dietary fat while inadvertently promoting trans fats which turned out to be far more dangerous than saturated fats.

In 1977 a US Senate Select Committee published dietary guidelines calling for reduction of all foods containing cholesterol (eggs) and saturated fats (like butter, lard, cream, and processed meats).  With help from consumer activists and government agencies, these guidelines became government policy and had a tremendous influence over Americans’ eating habits.

The government guidelines were based on inconclusive studies of total fat and total cholesterol intake.  In the 1980s, several studies indicated that foods with saturated fat contributed to heart disease while those with unsaturated fat (like fatty fish, almonds and other nuts, flax, and chia seeds), did not.  Since margarine was low in saturated fat, Americans were told to continue to eat “heart healthy” margarine instead of butter.

Unfortunately, margarine contains 25% trans fat, which turns out to be far more dangerous than other fats.  Though researchers had reported on the dangers of trans fats as early as 1981, the dominant narrative was that all saturated fats were bad and unsaturated fats were good.  Cholesterol, too, turned out to be more complex than we were led to believe.  Some cholesterol is actually good for you (HDL), some is bad for you (LDL) and some is VERY bad for you (VLDL).  Trans fats not only increase VLDL but they decrease HDL.

In contrast to the expedited way the government implemented guidelines on saturated fat and cholesterol, it wasn’t until 2006 that the FDA finally implemented rules requiring manufacturers to list the quantity of trans fats on nutrition labels.  As quoted in the article, Harvard epidemiologist Walter Willett said “you really need a high level of proof to change [government] regulations, which is ironic because they never had a high level of proof to set them.”  Unfortunately the FDA still allows manufacturers to claim zero grams of trans fats in products that contain less than .5 grams (like coffee creamer and some margarine).

Back to the LCR.  Like the dietary guidelines, the LCR was intended to protect the public.  But, like FDA rules, the LCR contains conditions, exceptions, and loop holes that open the door to abuse and actually discourage enforcement by the people charged to implement it.  Laws and regulations including the LCR that rely on science must be reviewed as the science evolves and brings forth new evidence.  This speaks to the importance of science advisors who understand science as well as legislation and can keep track to ensure legislation includes mandatory review periods.

2 Responses to Lead, Margarine, and Unintended Consequences

  • yanna says:

    Thanks for this fascinating piece. I did not know the regulatory history of fats nor Paul Offit’s book, and I am fascinated by both. The quote by Walter Willett is precious. What does it tell us about government guidelines/regulations? And what does it suggest about the gap between the “actual” versus “perceived” scientific base of these guidelines/regulations? Your observation about the LCR is spot on. What I find fascinating is that to this day, many of us (including the press) perceive government guidelines/regulations to reflect the latest science. Moreover, we assume that guidelines/regulations would quickly change if new scientific understandings were to be reached. In some ways, it almost seems like we are all in a dance of denial — government officials issuing guidelines/regulations that might be flawed or outdated and the rest of us accepting these guidelines/regulations unquestioningly and allowing them to change our behaviors and lives, even if they place us at increased risk. How/why is this possible do you think?

  • jcheri16 says:

    I think those who may be subjected to the risk, should have a voice in crafting or at the very least validating the standards. How regulatory science is created is the problem.

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