The glorious return of the egg: Why Uncle Sam is a horrible nutritionist

Decades of industry-corrupted science and lobbyist-corrupted government unfairly maligned a delicious and healthy food staple

The incredible, edible egg.
(Image credit: (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy Corbis, iStock))

Put down that egg-white omelet. Whole eggs aren't going to give you a heart attack.

So says the government now, after 40 years of warning that eggs are killing you, and funding bad research to "confirm" that they do, and employing experts to shout down nutritionists who say they don't.

The Washington Post report on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's revisions soft-pedals the change on cholesterol.

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The group's finding that cholesterol in the diet need no longer be considered a "nutrient of concern" stands in contrast to the committee's findings five years ago, the last time it convened...The greater danger in this regard, these experts believe, lies not in products such as eggs, shrimp, or lobster, which are high in cholesterol, but in too many servings of foods heavy with saturated fats, such as fatty meats, whole milk, and butter. [The Washington Post]

Here's a bet: Someday saturated fats — full fat butter, whole milk, tallow, and other animal fats — will be welcomed back, just as cholesterol has been. Until then, plenty of damage will be done to our health and the way we eat.

The American Heart Association and the U.S. government have been recommending a low-cholesterol, low-saturated fat diet for more than half a century. In 1961, when the AHA's guidelines first came out, one in seven Americans were obese. Now one in three are.

In the meantime, the pervasive fear of fat and cholesterol led Americans to completely novel and untested dietary fads, including partially hydrogenated oils. Ever see the white gunk around a fast-food meal? It can contain formaldehyde. The reigning dietary wisdom also led Americans to "diet" on tasteless carbs. Remember people eating rice cakes and grapefruit? Often at the same time?

The scares about cholesterol and fat date back to the middle of the last century. An enterprising physiologist, Ancel Keys, took a large government grant and conducted his famous study on diet and health. The whole thing was botched. He purposely excluded countries like France, Germany, and Switzerland that had a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet but better health outcomes than the U.S. He surveyed the diet of Greeks during Lent, when they were abstaining from meat and dairy. The study did not even look at the effect of different levels of dietary sugar, even though the data was available.

But Keys got the result that he had preached for years. Not long after, the AHA embraced the findings, and so, too, did the Food and Drug Administration.

Contrary to popular wisdom, Americans do not ignore government recommendations. American consumers and food producers respond to them. Americans have drastically reduced their intake of cholesterol and saturated fat. Egg consumption dropped 30 percent after this misguided health crusade began. The fear of cholesterol and fat has changed our whole food chain.

According to Nina Teicholz's revealing 2014 book, The Big Fat Surprise, Americans now eat over 1,000 times more soybean oil than they did a century ago, because these studies gave soybean industry lobbyists a lot of ammunition, and the lobbyists themselves started funding studies of their own. American soybean producers helped persuade the government to go after tropical oils like palm oil and coconut oil because they were saturated fats. Vegetable oils now account for 8 percent of America's consumed calories.

The fear of fat meant a dramatic turn away from pork. As pork consumption plummeted and poultry consumption skyrocketed, agribusiness bred skinnier pigs that it tried to market as "the other white meat."In other words, not the dangerous heart-attack red meat! But fewer people liked the taste of fatless pork chops, and pork production fell further.

The government's war on saturated fats also led the food industry to rely on trans fats. Decades into this experiment on human diet, the science on trans-fats started to look bad, and the FDA scrambled to adopt a policy mandating warning labels for foods containing trans fats. The food industry couldn't move back to butter, lard, and tallow because of ingrained consumer habits. So it instead came up with an entirely new set of "interesterified fats" and gel-like fat replacements like lecithin. There is also sorbitan tristearate, which isn't a fat but a "nonionic surfactant." One other problem that Teicholz discovered: Sometimes when the newer vegetable oils aerosolize, the white gunk that gets into cooks' clothes can spontaneously combust.

The health effects of these fats and fat substitutes are entirely unknown. But after decades of teaching people to reject foods with high saturated fat content, there was no way to sell the public the stuff they "knew" was bad. Much easier to sell stuff that no one really knows about one way or the other.

The story of the changing American diet over the last 60 years is a story of junk science funded by both government and corporate interests, as well as a cascade of health panics and regulations aimed at one "demon" ingredient after another. The result is an unhealthier, more obese population than the one that ate more dairy and nearly three times as much red meat a century ago.

Eggs may finally be coming off the demon list, but it seems like it's going to be decades more of industry-corrupted science, lobbyist-corrupted government, Olestra-like food substances, obesity and heart diseases, and a whole lot of nonionic surfactants before we figure out that traditional staples like butter and pork fat really are best.

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