The ‘fat wars’ in nutrition science and what it reveals about scientific discourse and the politics of doing scientific research
Where I grew up, in Singapore, the national health board exhorted the consumption of margarine and vegetable fats instead of saturated fats like butter and ghee three decades ago. It was only in the last decade or so that transfats in margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils were found to raise bad cholestrol levels which in turn, led to clogged arteries and cardiovascular diseases. These days, I buy only full-fat butter and whole-fat milk at supermarkets and my mother has gone back to eating butter with a vengeance. And I say with a vengeance because the manner in which she butters her toast worries me at times.
Like my disillusionment with transfats, more people are beginning to have second thoughts about fat intake and its purportedly ill effects on health as argued by The Guardian’s article on “The Sugar Conspiracy” (7Apr2016). It told the story of how a mainstream discourse vilifying the consumption of fat in our diets was created by powerful individuals– nutritionists, medical practitioners, governments, institutions, and businesses.
In the 1980s, Americans (& most of the English-speaking world) were told that saturated fat and cholesterol were the key reasons behind obesity and people were urged to cut out fat from their diet. Soon, food products started claiming to be “fat-free”. However, as many people would know by now, in order to make fat-free food palatable, manufacturers replace fat content with sugar or other artificial sweeteners. Obesity rates did not decrease; instead, they shot up in both the US and UK. According to the article, obesity rates have trebled from 1980-2000.
“Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. […] Today, two thirds of Britons are either obese or overweight, making this the fattest country in the EU. Type 2 diabetes, closely related to obesity, has risen in tandem in both countries.” (Leslie, 2016)
Clearly, the discourse— Fats are bad for your health— was not alleviating the obesity problem. In Ian Leslie’s account, it was a belief that was perpetuated by organisations and experts such as nutritional science researchers, medical practitioners…etc (whom the masses thought ‘would know better’). Leslie tried to argue in his article how powerful groups have worked to besmirch the life work of John Yudkin, a scientist who mooted an alternative viewpoint pinpointing sugar as the bigger evil.
Leslie offered several reasons for how Yudkin was sidelined and targeted by the rivalling American nutritionist, Ancel Keys, part of which he attributed to the personalities of the scientists in question. He described Yudkin as “a mild-mannered man, unskilled in the art of political combat” which made him vulnerable to attack from Keys and even organisations funded by sugar manufacturers like the British Sugar Bureau. Yudkin was “fastidiously precise and undemonstrative” while Ancel Keys was “brilliant, charismatic, and combative” and “exuded conviction at a time when confidence was most welcome”. Leslie seemed to imply that scientific findings needed to be presented and communicated in a certain way in order for them to be convincing and accepted; and to some extent, even the scientists’ personalities influenced their audiences’ receptiveness towards the scientific findings. (Sociologists might note how this brings to mind Max Weber’s notion of charismatic authority.) According to Leslie, Keys gained institutional power by sitting on “the boards of the most influential bodies in American healthcare” and as a result, was in the position to “[direct] funds to like-minded researchers, and issued authoritative advice to the nation” and to denigrate Yudkin’s opposing arguments.
Academic researchers might question how the fat-vilifying discourse (as advocated by Ancel Keys) could triumph just by how Keys came across as a scientist. After all, there remain certain checks and balances in academia (such as peer reviews, replicability, methodological rigour…etc) to evaluate scientific findings. It is worth noting that Leslie writes from a journalistic point of view and most of these stakeholders in the fat-sugar debate (sugar industries, businesses, the public) could be lay people or non-specialists in nutrition or medical science. The complexity of how a discourse could change and take on different meanings with various audiences (such as specialised or less specialised) raises interesting questions for how scientific research could be evaluated outside of academia.
What this says about scientific discourse and the politics of doing scientific research
In many respects, Leslie’s article was an account about how a scientific claim could be relegated to obscurity as a result of some very political rivalry between scientists. Scholars studying the history of science such as Thomas Kuhn and others would come to mind.
It is known that scientific claims of knowledge are not valued equally. Some gain recognition to become accepted truths while others fade into obscurity. One would think that well-reasoned, rigorous studies ought to prevail over less rigorous ones. It might seem that Yudkin lost his case because at that time, evidence for the correlation between fat intake and obesity far outweighed that of sugar. Evaluation and gate-keeping mechanisms exist in the scientific world too and they ought to sift out scientific studies that are valuable to extending humanity’s knowledge. But it could be the case that newly-minted scientific studies fail to get the attention they deserve not because they lack substance or rigour but because they were not favoured by the gate-keepers. Who are these gate-keepers? In Yudkin’s case, Leslie pointed the finger at Ancel Keys and organisations backed by sugar manufacturers. Seen in this context, these gate-keepers would have vested interests in maintaining certain beliefs in consumers’ minds about fat intake.
Extending this to academia, a more persistent question emerges: Why do gate-keepers not favour certain studies? In many researchers’ minds, the gate-keepers in the academic world could be editors and reviewers of journals and institutional authorities who tend to keep out views that are dissimilar to those in the majority in a particular community or which are communicated in ways that are unfamiliar to what was upheld.
Leslie’s claim that scientists are part of groups and converge in similar ways of thinking and ‘doing science’ is not new. Disciplines have been described as territories and researchers working in one field have been compared to tribes by Becher and Trowler (2001). More language-related studies have also shown how scientists in a particular discipline write in similar ways that differ from another discipline (Hyland 2004). The process of how a scientific claim becomes a scientific fact and eventually to tacit knowledge accepted by a discipline has been argued to be a discursive one that involves debate, verification and ratification amongst researchers (Latour 1987).
The idea that certain research gets recognised and accepted over time to become unquestioned truths remains an intriguing one. Whilst journalistic, Leslie’s story raises interesting questions for how scientific discourses might involve more than just science as many outside of academia would think.
~ Sixian Hah
The writer wants to thank Julian Hamann and Marta Wróblewska for their comments on an earlier draft of this blog post. Any errors remaining are, of course, solely hers.
Image: Colourbox, from nutrition research article, University of Bergen webpage
Becher, T. and P. Trowler (2001). Academic tribes and territories: Intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines, McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
Hyland, K. (2004). Disciplinary discourses: Social interactions in academic writing. Harlow, Longman.
Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society, Harvard university press.
Leslie, I. (2016, Apr 07). The Sugar Conspiracy. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com