Critical eye on saturated fat

As dietary review guidelines once again come to the fore, it seems there are no plans by the government to amend advice on saturated fat – a decision that is coming under fire from researchers. Eleanor Mackay reports

“Lives are at risk, and I would put it as seriously as that,” is how one leading researcher has described the government’s unwillingness to review the dietary guidelines on saturated fat. We are in a review year for US dietary guidelines, and those opposing them are re-energised and challenging our perceptions of saturated fat once again.

Recent research revealed in Open Heart, a British Medical Journal publication, concludes that our saturated fat dietary guidelines are not thorough enough. This view is supported by many industry and health professionals but contested by government health bodies such as Public Health England (PHE), which advises the Department of Health (DoH) and says there are no plans to amend the current government advice. However, recent media attention has sent shockwaves through the scientific community and the DoH and PHE are coming under increasing pressure to defend, or review, their recommendations.

Our saturated fat guidelines came into place in 1979 in the US, and 1983 in the UK, stating overall dietary fat consumption should be no more than 30% of total energy intake. Under US law, dietary guidelines must be reviewed every five years – but no such re-evaluation is taking place in the UK.

Zoe Harcombe, leader of the review published in Open Heart and obesity researcher at the Institute for Clinical Exercise & Health Science, University of the West of Scotland, argues that our guidelines on saturated fat are based on shaky evidence and should never have been introduced in the first place.

“The study, which reviewed data available at the time the guidelines were issued, states: “It seems incomprehensible that dietary advice was introduced for 220 million Americans and 56 million UK citizens, given the contrary results from a small number of unhealthy men.

“The results of the present meta-analysis support the hypothesis that the available [randomised controlled trials] did not support the introduction of dietary fat recommendations in order to reduce [coronary heart disease] risk or related mortality,” Harcombe says in her review of the guidelines.

Harcombe and other like-minded researchers believe that by demonising saturated fat, we are ignoring its benefits, such as its impact on the brain and the other benefits in the foods where it occurs.

“As our 2013 paper suggests,” Harcombe writes on her website, “using a 100g steak, as an example, with 5.4g of fat, it is difficult to accept that the 39% of the fat which is saturated is damaging to the cardiovascular system while the 61% of the fat which is unsaturated is protective. Keeping in mind that the total fat content of the steak will provide all but three of the 13 vitamins and 16 minerals that are a prerequisite for the maintenance of good health.”

The current momentum is on Harcombe’s side; a U-turn in opinion, created by several studies like her own, has helped change some public perception on the fat we eat. And although the sugar industry is proactive in deflecting any unwanted attention, it is now dominating the obesity debate, and we are seeing more constructive discussion surrounding carbohydrates, which have long been ignored as contributors to the Western world’s obesity problem.

So what does that mean for the meat industry? Are we going to see a change in specification that will see the fat back on our steak? Probably not.

The British red meat industry has gone to great lengths to accommodate our saturated fat guidelines – from opting for leaner breeds of cattle and rewarding farmers for leaner animals, to commonplace practises such as seam butchery, aimed to reduce the amount of saturated fat on our products. The public “big bad guy” view of fat means we opt for leaner cuts, and as Maureen Strong, dietician advisor to pork levy board Bpex, says, the meat industry has gone over and above the expectations and requirements to offer what consumers and the government want.

And it seems our government bodies appear to be digging their heals in on the matter, a spokesperson for PHE told Meatinfo that the totality of evidence clearly shows that eating too much saturated fat has serious consequences: “It raises your cholesterol levels, which will increase your risk of heart disease and ultimately endanger your health.”

However, Strong believes more research needs to be done to clarify the science surrounding saturated fat and its link to obesity and heart disease, and other industries are making headway.

The only food group that contains more saturated fat than unsaturated fat are dairy products and the dairy industry has done extensive work into combating perceptions on the fat group. The Dairy Council has been conducting its own research into the relationship between saturated fat and heart disease, which will be ramped up in the coming weeks and months in a bid to influence policy-makers to review the guidelines.

The debate has captured the minds of the media and medical profession, but there are still too many “ignorant dieticians running around demonising fat”, as Harcombe puts it. So until we fully understand its impact, our meat will remain just as lean.

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