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PUFA-rama: The Rise of Vegetable Oils

Death by Food Pyramid [1] has received almost nothing but 5-star reviews [2] since Primal Blueprint Publishing released it at the end of last year. It’s undoubtedly a hit within the community, and I think it’s an important read because it gives you, the consumer, the eater of food, the arbiter of what goes in your mouth, the tools to make the right choices and bypass the middlemen when it comes to interpreting science. Author Denise Minger and I want everyone to have a chance to read this book, so today we’re participating in a special promotion organized by Buck Books [3]. Until midnight tonight you can get a Kindle copy of Death by Food Pyramid [1] for just 99 cents! Today’s Buck Books offer has several other titles for just 99 cents that might interest you as well, including Cholesterol Clarity by Jimmy Moore, and Eat the Yolks by Liz Wolfe. You can view them all here [3]. Enjoy the excerpt from chapter 9 of Death by Food Pyramid below, and grab your copy while this limited-time offer lasts. Grok on!

The year was 1837, and the place was Cincinnati—the nation’s hub for all things pig. With its prime location, explosion of tanneries and slaughterhouses, and herds of swine tottering through the streets, the city had earned the nickname “Porkopolis,” shipping pork galore down river and feeding mouths near and far. And for two of the city’s accidental transplants—William Procter and James Gamble—that meant a steady supply of their business’s most precious commodity: lard.

But cooking with it was the last thing on the men’s minds. Instead, the rendered fat was the chief ingredient for their candles and soaps.

That the men had met at all—much less launched the now-largest consumer goods company in the world—was somewhat serendipitous. Procter, an English candle maker, had been voyaging to the great American West when his first wife died of cholera—cutting short his travels and leaving him stuck in Cincinnati. Gamble, an Irish soap maker, had been Illinois-bound when unexpected illness plopped him in the Queen City as well. Cupid must’ve seen a prime opportunity for meddling, because the men ended up falling in love with two Cincinnati women who just happened to be sisters. Marriage ensued, and with it came their new father-in-law’s flash of insight that the men, who were already competing for the same materials for their soap and candle-making pursuits, ought to become business partners.

And thus was born Procter and Gamble—or P&G, as we know it today.

The Death of Lard

Though Procter & Gamble enjoyed early success, its lifeblood—the animal-fat industry—saw the first hint of its eventual undoing near the turn of the century. It was a death-march summoned largely by journalist Upton Sinclair. After a two-month investigation of Chicago’s meatpacking district, he penned a fictional tale inspired by the horrors he’d witnessed: revolting conditions for immigrant workers, unsanitary meat-handling practices, and an utter abuse of power by the nation’s “industrial masters.” It wasn’t long before the novel, titled The Jungle and first published as serial installments in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, took the nation by storm.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind of storm Sinclair was banking on. While he assumed the book would evoke sympathy for the working class (and, if all went as planned, win support for the socialist movement), readers were too shocked by his descriptions of meat production to care much about the workers’ social plight: the stench of the killing beds, the acid-devoured fingers of pickle-room men, the poisoned rats scrambling onto meat piles and inadvertently joining America’s food supply. If nothing else, Sinclair succeeded in churning an unprecedented number of stomachs. And the sinking ship of meat’s reputation brought with it another casualty: lard. As one gruesome passage described:

The other men, who worked in the tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them to be worth exhibiting— sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!

The image of lard containing the renderings of people proved too vivid to purge from memory—a sort of Soylent Green prelude. Shortly after The Jungle exploded onto the scene, sales of American meat products sank by half. And while the book never elicited the political response Sinclair had hoped for, it did lead to a food-safety uproar so profound that the US government had to step in and calm its horrified citizens. In 1906, mere months after the book’s debut, Congress passed two landmark acts—the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906—to enforce standards for food production and help Americans feel better about what they were eating. (The two acts collectively set the groundwork for the Food and Drug Administration years later.)

Believing The Jungle failed as a social commentary but inadvertently succeeded as an expose? on food sanitation, Sinclair later remarked: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach!”

But even if Sinclair’s book managed to sour Americans on lard, no alternatives other than butter currently existed to satisfy the country’s cooking needs. At least not yet.

Over in France, chemist Paul Sabatier had been busily developing the hydrogenation process—the act of shooting hydrogen atoms into an unsaturated chemical compound. Though his early work was limited to vapors, it wasn’t long before another scientist, Wilhelm Normann, replicated the procedure using oils—demonstrating for the first time that a liquid fat could, through deft chemical tweaking, become solid at room temperature. At the time, it seemed on par with lead-to-gold alchemy.

And best of all, the thick, creamy result of hydrogenation was exactly what P&G needed to seal their legacy. Although the company spent years oblivious to those oversea hydrogenation miracles, a pivotal moment came in 1907 when Edwin Kayser—a recent transplant to Cincinnati, and chemist for the company that owned the rights to the process of hydrogenating oil—approached Procter & Gamble’s business manager with an idea. Why not use this revolutionary new substance to make soap?

It didn’t take long before the dream was a reality. By 1908, the company owned eight cottonseed mills and had secured a steady supply of the oil they needed to feed production.

Elbows-deep in the cottonseed market, Procter & Gamble realized their soap making—as lucrative as it was—had only tapped the surface of cottonseed oil’s potential. And the company soon found itself facing a new conundrum: the dawn of the electrical age. Although it would be many more years before the whole country was firelessly alight, candle sales were already taking a blow, and Procter and Gamble knew they needed to keep pace with the changing world to avoid a financial nosedive. It was time to enter the kitchen.

The Birth of Trans Fats

In 1910, Procter & Gamble applied for a US patent on the use of hydrogenation for making a human-grade food product. Compared to the flowery, rhetorically brilliant hype it would later receive, the description was cool and clinical:

This invention is a food product consisting of a vegetable oil, preferably cottonseed oil, partially hydrogenated, and hardened to a homogenous white or yellowish semi-solid closely resembling lard. The special object of the invention is to provide a new food product for a shortening in cooking.

After a few failed attempts to claim a name—“Krispo” was taken by a cracker company; “Cryst” sounded religious—Procter and Gamble settled on “Crisco,” derived from “crystallized cottonseed oil.” The name would quite literally become a household term.

Up until that point, a handful of processed vegetable oils had presence in America—but unlike today, their claim to fame had nothing to do with being edible. In fact, stomachs were often the last place highly refined oils would end up. Peanut oil had gained some publicity as a potential fuel: one company managed to coax a small diesel engine into running on it during the 1900 Paris Exhibition. And cottonseed oil made its American debut back in 1768, when a Pennsylvania doctor figured out how to collect the fat from crushed cottonseeds—which he then used as a treatment for colic. (Woe be to his patients, that crude oil was teeming with gossypol—a chemical that causes infertility, low blood potassium, and sometimes paralysis, and can only be removed from cottonseeds through heavy processing.)

Ginning mills were thrilled someone wanted to haul away their cottonseed. Through much of the 1800s, the stuff had simply been left to rot in gin houses, or occasionally dumped illegally into rivers. But one man’s trash had become another man’s treasure, so to speak, and P&G had pioneered what’s now an American tradition: getting rid of agricultural waste products by feeding them to humans. The company had effectively bridged the gap between garbage and food.

By 1911, Crisco made its official debut. And what a debut it was. Almost immediately, the new fat had gained not only the nation’s trust, but also its passionate love. Within a year, over 2.5 million pounds of Crisco had flown off the shelves; by 1916, that number reached sixty million.

How could a single product dominate the cooking world at warp speed—rising from total obscurity into an indispensible staple in a matter of months? P&G had a back-patting answer for themselves: that housewives, chefs, doctors, and dieticians “were glad to be shown a product which at once would make for more digestible foods, more economical foods, and better tasting foods.” Crisco exploded onto the scene all on its own, was the implication. It was just that good!

In reality, though, Crisco’s expedited fame was owed mainly to some of the most skillful, manipulative ad campaigns the young century had seen. Knowing it would be hard to convince housewives—the gatekeepers of America’s kitchens—to give up their familiar lard and butter in exchange for this strange new item, P&G had hyped their product like few things had ever been hyped before. The company mailed samples to fifteen thousand grocers in America. Thousands of flyers were circulated among jobbers.12 The company deftly played upon women’s burning desire to be “modern,” persuading them that clinging to animal fats in the face of this new scientific discovery would be akin to their grandmothers refusing to give up the spinning wheel.

But most powerful of all was The Story of Crisco—equal parts advertisement and cookbook—which P&G handed out to housewives free of charge. Its 615 recipes, all united by their shared ingredient, Crisco, ranged from tantalizing (Clear Almond Taffy; Snow Pudding with Custard) to whimsical (Calf ’s Head Vinaigrette; Mushrooms Cooked Under Glass Bells). The true marketing genius, however, came from the book’s introductory chapters. Carefully grooming readers into future Crisco acolytes, the book first painted animal fats in the most dismal light possible, expounding their “objectionable features” and whetting appetites for a better replacement. Crisco was presented as a panacea of sorts—healthier than lard, more economical than butter, and altogether in a category of its own. Everything other fats did wrong, Crisco did right. P&G managed to create a demand for something people hadn’t even known they wanted.
(As a peek into the different meat world of the day, the book was also busting with recipes for ox tongue, baked brains, heart, kidney omelets, sweetbreads (that’s the more appetizing term for pancreas or thymus), stewed liver, and tripe (the rubbery lining of ruminant stomachs)—all foods fit for an impressive supper back in the day. As we’ll see in the upcoming Meet Your Meat chapter, the systematic purging of these foods from the modern menu has done us a great nutritional disservice.)

In the wake of the grungy, repulsive world of meatpacking depicted in The Jungle, Crisco built its image on purity. Its factories were gleaming, sterile wonderlands. Its product was bright as snow. Its packaging included not only a tin can, but also an over-wrap of white paper, emphasizing its pristine state. Everything about the product screamed undefiled. Like the incorruptible relics of a saint, Crisco seemed eternally taintless—exactly what America, eager to wipe itself of the grime of the 1800s and enter a cleaner century, was hungry for.

Incidentally, The Story of Crisco also captured a fascinating view of fat from the early 1900s—a perspective that would face extinction once the USDA unleashed its smack down on all things lipid. In its chapter titled “Man’s Most Important Food, Fat,” The Story of Crisco remarked, “No other food supplies our bodies with the drive, the vigor, which fat gives. No other food has been given so little study in proportion to its importance.” (Emphasis in original.)

Back in the day, Crisco was indeed nothing short of a miracle. It came from plants; it was firm; it was tasty; it was cheap; it fried foods without smoking; and huzzah, it was even kosher and parava—usable with both milk and meat per Jewish dietary law. (Rabbi Margolies of New York, who was in charge of approving the food’s kosher label, remarked “the Hebrew Race had been waiting four thousand years for Crisco.”)

It wasn’t long before this new dietary messiah had infiltrated pantries, fryers, cakes, pies, omelets, meatloaves, and the very heart of America’s psyche. During World War II, butter rationing helped push Crisco and margarine to center stage, and oils from corn and soybean joined cottonseed oil as the slippery darlings of a new food technology. It wasn’t long before science seemed to be cheering on the trend as well.

In 1961, with the famous Ancel Keys now an iron-jawed board member, the American Heart Association (AHA) officially threw its weight behind the idea that saturated fat was causing heart disease—implying that P&G’s profit-driven corralling of Americans away from lard and butter had accidentally been good for their health. Around the same year, the nation’s margarine consumption exceeded butter intake for the first time in history.

It seemed Crisco had done the impossible and lived up to its own unbridled hype. But there was a dark side to all this purity. With cottonseed oil’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio registering a magnitude 258 to 1, Crisco became the first ingredient to unleash unprecedented levels of linoleic acid—a polyunsaturated fat—into the American diet. Unknown to even the sharpest nutritionists of the day, Crisco had invited two killers into the American diet: trans fat resulting from partially hydrogenating oils and an astronomical intake of omega-6 fats—both now known to increase the risk of heart disease and cause inflammatory immune responses. It would be many decades before anyone realized what had gone so horribly wrong. In fact, the USDA would promote trans fats all the way up until 2005.

But long before then, there had been growing suspicion that trans fats were fatal to our well-being. As early as the 1950s, while Ancel Keys was busy winning the world over to Team Anti-Saturated Fat, other researchers were noting the uncanny connection between the use of partially hydrogenated oils (and the trans fat they contained) and the rising rates of both heart disease and cancer.16 While correlation between the two couldn’t prove causation any more than Keys’s population data could conclusively damn saturated fat, the parallel between trans fat intake and chronic disease rates were beginning to ring some warning bells.

Early research also suggested something awry about trans fats. By the 1960s, scientists realized that while vegetable oils were known to reduce cholesterol levels in controlled trials, the hydrogenated forms of those same oils failed to follow suit. In 1968, it was disconcerting enough for the American Heart Association (AHA) to take note and warn the public in a brochure titled Diet and Heart Disease:

Partial hydrogenation of polyunsaturated fats results in the formation of trans forms which are less effective than cis forms in lowering cholesterol concentration. It should be noted that many currently available shortenings and margarines are partially hydrogenated and may contain little polyunsaturated fat of the natural cis,cis form.17

(Cis is a chemistry term meaning “on this side,” in this case referring to the configuration of atoms in unsaturated fat.)

Despite fifteen thousand pamphlets going to print with a carefully worded demotion of trans fats, none of them would see the light of day. That’s because Fred Mattson—a researcher gainfully employed by P&G—convinced the AHA’s medical director to remove all traces of those incriminating statements. Instead of distributing the thousands of copies they’d already printed, the AHA revised the brochure to make it more palatable to the margarine and shortening industries. Decades would pass before the AHA dragged trans fats back onto the cutting block—years where countless lives were no doubt injured by ignorance of its dangers.

Gag Order on Trans Fats

Remember our conversation back in chapter two on Luise Light, the former USDA nutritionist whose plans for a new food guide—one that would have cracked down on processed starches and sugars in favor of fresh, whole foods—had been so brutally mutated? As it happens, her shadowy safari through the agriculture department included a peek into the era’s trans fat research. And what she saw was shocking.

To Read the Rest of Death by Food Pyramid [1] Get Your Copy on Kindle by Midnight Tonight (EDT) for Just 99 Cents!