Nourishing Fats: Why We Need Animal Fats for Health and Happiness by Sally Fallon Morell
Nourishing Fats outlines the history of the diet-heart hypothesis and why conventional government advice and science decided to make saturated fats (mostly from animals) the bad guy.
In this episode, we discuss:
NOLA red beans and rice (minus rice) made with homemade andouille
Hot dogs made of beef heart and steak
Climbing in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky
“Paleo” carrot cupcakes
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price
Animal fats are the best
Not only does Nourishing Fats counter the conventional wisdom that saturated fats and animal fats are problematic for health, but it asserts that they belong in a healthy diet and their consumption should be encouraged as much as possible. Ms. Fallon also writes about the benefits to mood and emotions that eating saturated fats provides. Contrary to the belief that highly palatable foods are inherently bad for health, the book discusses how humans’ palates and tastes are geared towards informing healthy foods in an organic, real world devoid of modern, processed foods. Just because processed foods are engineered to appeal to tastes and be highly addictive does not mean that the evolutionary principles guiding our taste preferences should be ignored.
There is a reason raw, unhomogenized milk, cream, and butter from happy cows raised on organic pasture appeal to us. They are nutritious and healthful foods. Same goes for eggs, steak, pork ribs, and other demonized foods constantly lumped in with processed foods by idiotic nutrition studies like this one and this one. (We’ve mentioned the latter study on the podcast before. The researchers make a food group called “salad and wine” and a group called “Southern” that features fried foods, organ meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages. Serious waste of time and money, if you ask us.) Real-food sources of these dishes are perfectly healthy for humans and, in fact, what we have been eating for millennia.
Vegetable oil is the worst possible thing
Vegetable oil did not exist until the late 1800s. After the discovery of electricity, fat was no longer needed for candles and lamp fuel, so there was an excess of inedible liquid oils. Rather than discard the extra oils, companies turned them into something resembling lard and sold it as food. In fact, the first (entirely false) health claim promoting vegetable oil was made in a Crisco ad in 1912.
Shortly after vegetable oil’s introduction and widespread consumption, the modern Diseases of Civilization (hypertension, diabetes, obesity, acne, thyroid disorders, cancer, tooth decay, physical deformities, gout, IBS, heart disease, arthritis, depression, and more) started cropping up in record numbers in the US. Some scientists (like physiologist Ancel Keys) decided to figure out why, and the government became obsessed with coming up with recommendations for all its citizens.
The history of how animal fats became demonized in the United States is discussed at length in Episode 2: The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, so we didn’t repeat that aspect of Ms. Fallon’s book for this episode. Instead, we focused on the science of vegetable oils and what we particularly liked of Ms. Fallon’s discussion of this entire story.
Scientists stupidly chose to promote vegetable oil consumption
Scientists and doctors were hesitant to recommend limiting fat at first because they thought it would be dangerous. Once it became accepted by mainstream scientists and a part of the USDA Dietary Guidelines for several iterations, the idea that saturated fat from healthy animals (and the idea that animal fats were predominantly saturated, which they are not necessarily) was terrible for humans became ingrained in American psyches. And it became taboo among the scientific community to challenge the idea in any way, so scientists continued to try to prove the “diet-heart hypothesis” and secure funding for their research.
For example, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, led by Senator George McGovern, “actively promoted the use of vegetable oils” when it first came up with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Ms. Fallon’s colleague, and Weston A. Price Foundation cofounder, Mary Enig poked holes in the McGovern Committee report. However, anyone trying to publish evidence exposing vegetable oils as dangerous was intimidated by members of the industry. After Enig’s article was published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in 1979, she was visited (read: intimidated) by S. F. Reipma of the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers; Thomas Applewhite, advisor to the ISEO and representative of Kraft Foods; Ronald Simpson from Central Soya; and a representative of Lever Brothers.
Currently, there are several organizations that defend and promote the use of vegetable oils, including the Institute for Shortening and Edible Oils, American Soybean Society, Canola Council of Canada, American Oil Chemists’ Society, and dozens more.
Proponents of low-fat and low-saturated/animal fat diets argued that Blue Zones (places where average life expectancy is higher compared with neighboring areas) were so healthy because they eat little meat and fat. We like this book because it does a good job of offering plenty of Blue Zones that eat plenty of meat and fat, including Japan. Ms. Fallon also includes that the Swiss eat a high-fat diet even though people often contend that they don’t. In fact, the reason these countries historically were so healthy was that they didn’t eat white flour and vegetable oil until the 20th century.
We hate vegetable oil, and we hate that it has taken over the food industry
Luckily, we can avoid vegetable oil 100% by buying our food from farmers’ markets, hunting and foraging, and cooking everything ourselves. When we have direct contact with the source of ingredients and can verify their quality matches our values, then there is no reason for us to have to consume vegetable oil. The same cannot be said for 99% of Americans—or any American who eats in restaurants. For example, fast food restaurants used to use animal fats to fry and cook their food, but CSPI lobbied hard to get the restaurants to use hardened vegetable oils. Then, in a fantastic (an infuriating) twist of irony, the CSPI got mad at the same restaurants for using the shortening they forced them to use because scientists discovered that artificial trans fats (created by heating hardened vegetable oils) are terrible for humans. Then they forced them to switch to liquid vegetable oils, which are literally no better than their hardened counterparts.
The other thing that angers us immensely is that restaurants and food manufacturers for some reason think that vegetable oil is a neutral ingredient not worth mentioning. For example, one of the major bread bakeries in Indianapolis uses vegetable oil in its bannetons or lexans, but it doesn’t disclose this as an ingredient. It acts like the only ingredients are wheat, water, sourdough starter, and salt.
Moreover, a local butcher shop that also doubles as a sandwich shop advertises its French Fries as “tallow fries”, but they really just buy commodity fries pre-fried in soybean oil and then flash-frozen. Julia had asked about these fries and was reassured they are only fried in tallow only to find out later it was a lie. When we eat at restaurants (which we rarely do), we have to tell the staff we are allergic to all vegetable oils and explicitly define what that means because often the answer is, “Oh we don’t use any vegetable oil. We use canola oil!”
“Vegetable oil” is a bit of a misnomer.
It sounds like a wholesome alternative to “meat oil” that comes from vegetables. But it is actually extracted from seeds. Most vegetable oil in the US is from soybean, corn, cotton seed, rapeseed, grapeseed, etc. Squeezing oil from seeds is not inherently a problem. For example, people in Bangladesh traditionally crush mustard seeds for their oil and use it for cooking. (Of course, scientists are trying to end this by encouraging people in Bangladesh to use vitamin A-fortified soybean oil instead of mustard seed oil.) Cold-pressing oil from organic seeds using traditional methods is completely safe, and the oil should be fine. Similarly, eating seeds that contain naturally occurring oils is fine.
Squeezing seeds from nature is fine, but the process of making industrial vegetable oil destroys all benefits of the original seeds. First, seeds are crushed and then heated to 230 degrees F. The oil is squeezed out with pressure, and a solvent is used to extract all the oil from the seeds. Then the solvent is boiled off, but some (100 parts per million) is allowed to remain. As Ms. Fallon writes, “The oil that comes out of an industrial press is typically a dark, sticky, smelly gunk.”
To clean up this gross mush, refiners use—surprise, surprise—more heat and chemicals. The oil is steamed to remove the solvent and treated with an alkaline substance. Then these chemicals need to be washed off, and the oil is dried, which involves more heat. Then the oil has to be degummed with another chemical, and a centrifuge removes the excess gums. Because the oil is sludgy and gross at this point, it has to be filtered through activated carbon or clays to remove the dark color. By this point, the oil also stinks, so it has to be deodorized by using a steam and is heated to over 400 degrees F.
As Ms. Fallon summarizes, “The oil that then goes into bottles looks and smells clean, but it has gone through at least six heatings: heating when pressed, heating to remove solvents, heating during refining, heating during the drying process, heating during degumming, and heating (to very high temperatures) during deodorization.” In addition, because the process to make this garbage destroys all the beneficial compounds and vitamins in the oils, things like BHT and BHA, both toxic and carcinogenic, are added to replace the destroyed stuff.
The science of vegetable oil
Given its chemical structure, it is highly susceptible to rancidity and oxidation. Vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature because most of the fatty acid chains are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Saturation of fatty acids refers to the degree to which the spaces surrounding carbon atoms are “filled” with hydrogen atoms. In a saturated fatty acid, carbons are surrounded by hydrogen molecules, and the resulting molecule is straight and resistant to change. Monounsaturated fatty acids have at least one double bond where a carbon atom bonds instead to another carbon atom and not to a hydrogen atom. Due to polarity, atom size, and other laws determining attraction between atoms, monounsaturated fatty acids have a bend at the spot of the double bond.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids have multiple double bonds between carbons and therefore multiple bends. Double bonds between carbon atoms are not as strong as single bonds between carbon and hydrogen, so unsaturated fatty acids are much less resistant than saturated fatty acids to oxidation and change. When bonds between atoms are easily broken, molecules are encouraged to rearrange into more stable forms (for themselves, not for human health), and unpaired electrons will seek out a molecule to join. One consequence of the fragility of vegetable oils is the formation of dangerous molecules, like formaldehyde. Writes Ms. Fallon, “In one analysis, a total of one hundred thirty volatile compounds were isolated from one piece of chicken fried in vegetable oil.”
Rancidity is particularly likely with vegetable oil because it is packaged in plastic and stored in bright light. Also the trucks on which it is transported can have inconsistent heating and cooling, so the oil can repeatedly change temperatures. In fact, heating vegetable oil is precisely what exploits the instability of the oil. During the extraction and production processes, vegetable oil is heated around 7 different times, so the fatty acid molecules continuously rearrange into molecules never before encountered by human digestive systems.
Finally, the refining process adds in several harsh chemicals that are not listed on ingredient labels for vegetable oil. These include petroleum-derived hexane, sodium hydroxide, and phosphoric acid.
As mentioned above, vegetable oils are composed of primarily polyunsaturated fatty acids. Fatty acids are made up of carbon-hydrogen chains in which hydrogen surrounds carbon and forms single or double bonds. The amount of double bonds determines the amount of kinks in what would otherwise be a straight chain. Since saturated fatty acids are straight and have little space between molecules, they will pack together tightly and be solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, due to their bends, will not pack together tightly and will never be liquid at room temperature. At the end of a fatty acid, an OH (oxygen-hydrogen) pair denotes the chain is an acid, meaning it will lower the pH of surrounding liquids and attract elections.
Nourishing Fats is one of the most important books we've read—both for the podcast and in life in general. It gives the entire history of how and why animal fats got demonized and vegetable oils promoted. It leaves no doubt that vegetable oils should not be consumed by anyone because they are a modern invention with countless problems. Whereas humans have been eating animal fats and meat for as long as they've been a species, they've only been eating processed seed oils for the past 150 or so. At the same time as all the major chronic illnesses began.
Our only critique of this book is that some things aren't explained fully, so we have to supplement with other books on this topic. But we were always going to do that anyway. If you're even remotely interested in health and nutrition, you need this book. It is a necessary component to your collection that you'll reference over and over.
Trans fatty acids are one negative and dangerous by-product of industrially processed vegetable oils. There are naturally occurring trans fatty acids, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), found in high amounts in pasture-raised beef and pork. The ones in vegetable oil are created by heating the oil throughout processing and by interacting with the other chemicals present. In this book, the explanation of trans fatty acids isn’t super clear, but the diagram offers some help. Even though the trans fatty acids perform like saturated fatty acids (because they are more solid and have more hydrogen added to the carbon chain), they are not the same as saturated fats. The added hydrogens are in the wrong place, so like enantiomers, the resulting molecule is chemically very different from the one it is emulating, and the body treats it as such.
The other very dangerous fat created from vegetable oil is interesterified fat. Fatty acids are typically three chains of carbon/hydrogen on a glycerol backbone. Interesterified fats rearrange the order of fatty acid chains on the glycerol molecule, which scientists argue is better for digestion and to prevent against CHD. However, this doesn’t change the fact that these fatty acids are manmade and unnatural for the human body. Humans have been eating saturated fat from healthy animals for over 100,000 years. Interesterified fats have existed for fewer than 20.
The Cholesterol connection
Historically, saturated animal fat was demonized for its connection to cholesterol. Regardless of cholesterol’s actual role in the body (repair molecule, precursor to hormones and vitamin D), it has been treated as an evil substance that should be limited as much as possible. There are several types of cholesterol, including, as they are popularly called, low-density lipoprotein and high-density lipoprotein, or LDL and HDL, respectively. Cholesterol has been blamed for cardiovascular disease (CHD) and heart attacks because it is found in plaques in arterial walls in people who have died from heart attacks.
Ancel Keys developed the “diet-heart hypothesis”, which stated that saturated fat consumption would raise blood cholesterol levels, which would lead to heart attacks. While unproven, this idea took over the scientific community, and they endeavored to find an alternative to consuming saturated fats. When they studied vegetable oils, scientists found that they didn’t increase LDL cholesterol (the so-called “bad cholesterol”) and in fact lowered it. This was heralded as a reason to replace fat from animals with industrial fat from seeds.
Ms. Fallon’s book makes a fascinating point about this. Other scientists have argued that the reason LDL numbers are lower in a vegetable oil-based diet is that the body is pulling LDL cholesterol from the blood to reinforce cell walls when it has a shortage. LDL helps cell walls retain rigidity, and vegetable oil is too fluid to successfully form a lipid bilayer. We find this point particularly hilarious. Vegetable oil lowers LDL cholesterol in the blood because the fats in vegetable oil are insufficient for the body to do what it needs to, so not only is vegetable oil problematic on its own, but it leads to the body using LDL for cell wall reinforcement rather than other important uses.
One last point about cholesterol that makes us LOL from this book. Ms. Fallon acknowledges that oxidized cholesterol is something to worry about. People think cholesterol should be feared because it shows up where inflammation also is. However, cholesterol doesn’t cause inflammation; it responds to it. It is a repair molecule. Oxidized cholesterol, on the other hand, can cause inflammation and damage. Because it is reactive, oxidized cholesterol can damage tissues and create damage to arterial walls. Oxidized cholesterol is often added to commodity milk. The irony is that nonfat milk with fillers is billed as healthier than full-fat, raw milk from pastured cows because saturated fats are demonized for their connection to cholesterol (which isn’t even a problem), and actually dangerous cholesterol is present in commodity milk.
This book has several little tidbits about health that we admire
First, Ms. Fallon focuses on the importance of vitamin A for internal asymmetry and external symmetry. Adequate vitamin A during development is what allows for beautifully symmetrical faces and necessarily asymmetrical internal organs. One sign of vitamin A deficiency in modern humans is the presence of red, splotchy bumps on the backs of the arms. Sasha and Julia both see this symptom on their arms, so they have to constantly try to regulate their balance of vitamins A, D, and K. One method for balancing these and ensuring adequate vitamin A is to take fermented cod liver oil. Also, one should aim for liver (including raw liver) as much as possible.
Speaking of liver, there is way too vocal of a group who argue that Americans eat too much organ meats. Studies that try to organize people into diets based on food groups often lump organ meats into diets that contain processed food and soda as if the same people who drink Coke and eat Cheetos are running home to make liver and onions with meat from the farmers’ market. We argue that this is a wildly unlikely scenario. Organ consumption has fallen drastically in the United States; the USDA doesn’t even allow the sale of most organs. Most are discarded or turned into pet food. In fact, the butcher shop where Julia worked (which prided itself on using the whole animal—HA!), threw away all the kidneys and glands, most of the skin and bones, and a good portion of fat and sprayed it all with poisonous chemicals to deter animals from getting into the dumpsters.
Finally, Americans have very much responded to the call to eat less animal fat and more liquid fat from industrial seed oils. Whoever is arguing that the American diet is too high in saturated fat hasn’t really examined it in a while. Most people eat mostly processed foods, which are made with soybean, cottonseed, canola, and corn oils. Ms. Fallon includes a graph in this book that shows that the consumption of fats from traditional sources has decreased while consumption of fats from manmade industrial processes has increased.
Our main takeaway from this book is that we aim for as much butter and saturated fats from animals as possible. We both started eating more organ meats in response to this book, including delicious cod liver spread on organic sourdough fresh from the oven. And the whole reason the podcast is called Bacon Phat is because we not so subtly want everyone to know that cooking in and eating animal fats are paramount to human health.