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It's the kind of breathless nutrition journalism you've come to expect in today's 24-hour, always-on news cycle's thirst for sensation:

  • "Low-fat diet could kill you, major study shows," says the headline in London's Telegraph.
  • "Eating a low-fat diet increases your risk of dying young by 25%," according to The Sun.
  • "Everything we thought we knew is a lie," says one women-centric news website.

Hair-afire journalism aside, the findings of the new study just published in the medical journal The Lancet are contradictory to conventional wisdom on saturated fats, to say the least. Canadian medical epidimiologist Mahshid Dehghan and more than 200 other investigators from around the world undertook an "ambitious" study that collected data on more than 135,000 people from 18 countries across five continents, following their diet and health for an average of 7.4 years.

Here's what they found. On average, those people who got more than a third of their daily calories in the form of fat demonstrated a reduced risk of dying vs. those who got the lowest amount from fat, or about 11 per cent. And as you'd expect—since the only other meaningful dietary source of calories is carbohydrates—people who obtained more than three-quarters of their daily calories from carbohydrates had a 30 per cent higher risk of dying than people who got less than half their energy from carbs.

"Once again," write the Lancet editors in a commentary on the study, "This lack of definitive evidence has left clinicians, scientists, and the public uncertain about the best foods to [recommend] and to eat."

Why this abrupt reversal in thinking about saturated fats, flying in the face of, in the editors' words, "the most enduring and consistent diet advice..to restrict saturated fatty acids, by replacing animal fats with vegetable oils and complex carbohydrates (and more recently whole grains)?"

Because it really wasn't a reversal, at least as far as the science is concerned.

In The Lancet article, Dehghan echoes the opinion of a growing number of scientists: The common advice to restrict saturated fatty acids, which has even been incorporated into USDA's dietary guidelines, “is largely based on selective emphasis on some observational and clinical data, despite the existence of several randomised trials and observational studies that do not support these conclusions.” The Dehghan study only reinforces what common-sense nutritional recommendations have long understood. An extremely low-fat, high-carb diet is at least associated with, if not a cause of, an increased risk of death from something other than heart disease, but moderate fat and carbohydrate intakes were not associated with increased risks. In a separate Lancet article, the same group reports that eating specific carbohydrate groups—fruits, legumes and raw vegetables—was associated with a lower risk of death. So the bottom line: Once again, it's likely processed carbohydrates, including added sugars and refined grains, that may be driving the increase in risk.

When it comes to the common sources of saturated fats, the case has never been closed on their relative value vs. their risk of contributing to heart disease. Here's what we know:

Eggs: Eggs have one of the lowest ratios of energy to nutrients as any food, writes British nutritionist Bruce Griffin, and a protein quality that's as good as dairy and better than steak. That must certainly qualify them as good, so the burden of proof has been to settle the question of whether their high cholesterol offsets that good. What we're now coming to understand about the difference between dietary and blood cholesterol has tipped the question in eggs' favor. "After 60 years of research," he says, "a general consensus has now been reached that dietary cholesterol, chiefly from eggs, exerts a relatively small effect on serum LDL-cholesterol and [heart-disease] risk, in comparison with other diet and lifestyle factors. Although some question may still remain about their risk in people who are diabetic, it's likely other dietary components have unfairly clouded that picture against eggs.

Milk and dairy. Despite milk and dairy foods contributing about a quarter of saturated fat intake in western diets, evidence from prospective cohort studies does not support a detrimental effect of milk and dairy foods on risk of heart disease, according to nutritional researcher Julie Lovegrove. The majority of prospective studies and meta-analyses examining the relationship between milk and dairy product consumption and risk of cardio-vascular disease show that milk and dairy products, excluding butter, are not associated with detrimental effects on dying or risk biomarkers that include serum LDL-cholesterol. In addition, there is increasing evidence that milk and dairy products are associated with lower blood pressure and arterial stiffness. These apparent benefits of milk and dairy foods have been attributed to their unique nutritional composition, and suggest that the elimination of milk and dairy may not be the optimum strategy for heart disease risk reduction.

Red meat? Scottish nutritionist Laura Wyness notes red meat has earned its spot in the evolution of the human diet by providing a rich source of not only protein, but protein that's easily available to the body to digest and use. It's micronutrients, particularly iron, are also more bio-available. But what of its notorious saturated fat? Dietary advice to limit red meat has gone too far, write nutritionists from Canada's beef and pork associations in the scientific journal Meat Science—even to the point of causing unintended health consequences. Even as dietary advice to limit red meat has remained standard in developed countries, energy intakes from processed foods have increased dramatically at the expense of nutrient-rich foods. They argue, as the Lancet authors suggest, that research implies the jump in obesity and associated disease in recent decades should be laid at the feet of carbs, not saturated fats in red meat. "It is time for dietary advice that emphasizes the value of unprocessed red meat as part of a healthy balanced diet," they say.

  • Austin, Texas', 10th annual Austin Bug Eating Festival in June brought out hundreds of kids and adults to "tour of the exciting new culinary world of insect cuisine," as the show promoters put it. Detroit's Wayne State University held a similar conference in May 2016, a three-day, first-ever, international, interdisciplinary conference on the topic of insects as food and feed.​ (In a bit of news that may restore your faith in Nebraska common sense, Lincoln holds its own similar annual Bugfest, but without a single mention of the gourmet aspect of bugs.)
  • The usual annual freaky fair fare now includes, at this year's Wisconsin State Fair, cricket nachos. The vendor, All Things Jerky, says it has been selling insect snacks at the fair since 2011, including chocolate-covered scorpions and ant lollipops.
  • "Ecological entomologist" Marcel Dicke's TED talk pitching a case for adding insects to everyone's diet includes delicacies like locusts and caterpillars, which he claims can compete with meat in taste and nutrition, while offering an environment-friendly alternative. His online video is approaching 1.5 million views.
  • The Nordic Food Lab, featured in a November 2016 issue of London's Independent, is the brainchild of a Michelin-starred chef and a culinary entrepreneur to promote "a holistic approach" to eating. "We try to work with every type of produce," explains Roberto Flore, Head of Culinary Research and Development  at the lab." Insects, blood, jelly fish, fermented products and even feces are fair game. "It’s about giving people more confidence with different produce and reconnecting with the process of producing food." 

And those are just the tip of the anthill. From Bloomberg to The Economist, Slate to Huffington Post, entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—has become the rage. More than 2,000 insect species are eaten around the globe, mainly in the tropics, and new-food advocates want many of them to come to a supermarket near you.

Advocates for edible insects as an alternative protein source for people and animals promote them as improvements over animal-based meat because they produce lower greenhouse gas emissions, convert feed into protein more efficiently, use less land and can transform low-value organic matter into high-value protein.

No less than Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nationas in a May 2016 interview surrounding the Paris climate-change summit sang their praise. "We cannot continue the way we are producing and consuming meat.... And of course there are alternative sources of protein.... [Instects] make up part of the diet of two billion people and are commonly eaten in many parts of the world. Eating insects is good for the environment and balanced diets."

"I'm not sure if it will be in five years or 50," argues Austin Miller, owner of Oregon's Craft Crickets, "but we'll all be eating insects eventually."

Bugging consumers to turn to bugs is part of the wider green-shaming movement to turn your shoppers against meat. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Washington-based animal-rights advocacy Humane Society of the United States, for instance, details the group's plans to support marketing of meat alternatives in his new Humane Economy. HSUS has already invested half a million dollars into Beyond Meat, a startup dedicated to disguising non-animal products as meat, and the organization has a long history of promoting animal-based protein as disgusting and gruesome—although, to Pacelle's credit, the organizations appears to see bugs more as fellow beings than as food source, a paradox many bug-eating vegans may eventually come up against.

Plenty of strong arguments can be made—and have been made—about the flawed underlying assumptions about the environmental dangers of traditional, animal-based meat. But the real problem with converting consumers to bugs is less cerebral: Ick. Need we say more?

"While eating insects seems to be a rational solution to the challenge of efficiently supplying animal protein to a growing world population," writes Tulane food marketing professor Eric Hamerman, "many people—especially those in the Western Hemisphere—are unwilling to even contemplate eating insects. In the United States, those who do eat insects tend to do so as a dare...rather than for their nutritional value."

Inconsistent and illogical though it may sometimes be, Hamerman says, disgust at eating bugs is a deeply ingrained food aversion. Shoppers willing to at least consider trying bugs may be convinced to eat them by increasing their familiarity with them in the kitchen. But, he writes, "If someone is extremely disgusted by the thought of a dead insect being served as food, ...no amount of cooking can transform the bug-based ingredients thoroughly enough to...convince him or her to re-categorize it as non-disgusting food."

What would it ever take to get shoppers past that disgust factor? Here's the long list Dutch tropical entomologist Arnold van Huis spells out in his review of the future of bug-eating in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society:

Try it, you'll like it? People who have eaten insects before have a more positive attitude towards entomophagy than the people who haven't, he writes. However, he doesn't elaborate on which comes first, willingness to eat a bug or satisfaction at having done so.
Appeal to higher purpose? Providing information about the nutritional and environmental benefits of edible insects should sway them, he believes. Will consumers really shop their conscience by eating maggots? The jury is out.
When in doubt, disguise? Baking termites and lake flies into crackers, muffins, sausages and meat loaf can make them more salable—if shoppers are advocates for bug eating from the start, van Huis says. He also suggests slowly ratcheting up the concentration of hidden bug parts in flour until one day there's less flour and more bug.
'Hey, Orkan Man?' Using the right celebrity spokesman might convince disgusted consumers, he suggests. Topping his suggested list: the U.N.'s Annan and the chefs of some of the world's best restaurants.

A pig is a cow is a fly is a cricket? Bug marketers may succeed by, in van Huis' words, "Indicating the systematic proximity in animal classification between insects and crustaceans." In other words: "Shrimp" is just Old Norse for "giant pill bug"—really tasty giant pill bug.

Is this worm antibiotic-free? Surveys show half of respondents in the United States consider germs and disease as a risk in eating insects. Although he argues science and government can get them over that hurdle with more and better information, that assumption remains debatable in a country where eight in 10 consumers stubbornly persist in concerns about nonexistent hormones in their chickens.

Cook it, and they will come? van Huis points to studies arguing rational pitches about environment and nutrition will never bring consumers over to the bug. The only way to make insects acceptable is to make them delicious. Good luck with that.

Dime a dozen? Safe, high-quality and affordable, van Huis argues, will eventually bring shoppers around to bugs, just as it does with any food.

 

What's really going on with chicken meat

Suddenly, it seems, the quality of U.S. poultry meat has gone to pot. For about 18 months, social media have repeated complaints over "newfound" problems with the quality of poultry, particularly high-margin whole breasts, including these conditions:

  • White striping. White fat striations in the meat running parallel to the muscle fibers.
  • Woody breast. A degeneration of the breast muscle that causes connective tissue to replace muscle, giving the meat a stiffer texture.
  • Green muscle disease. A condition caused by lack of blood supply in the live bird to the muscles forming the breast tender, it results in damage to the muscle similar to a bruise that can eventually cause the meat to take on a green tint.

What gives?

Although it's dangerous to ascribe social media trends to a single incident, it appears the attention dates back to a "scientific report" and PR campaign video by by the animal-welfare advocacy group Compassion in World Farming.

“While the specific causes of muscular disorders like [white striping] are still being researched, the vast majority of studies conducted thus far have found a correlation between fast growth, heavier weights, higher breast yield, and the development of myopathies in broilers,” the CIWF campaign claims. The YouTube video calling striping "a disease," that's "similar to muscular dystrophy in humans," implying eating chicken that shows the condition is a health risk for consumers.

"It kinda grosses me out," says one on-camera talent.

Minus the breathless alarmism, here's what we really know about these meat problems:

  • White striping. This relatively new condition in poultry breeding was first described in 2010 and is believed to be a genetic condition related to selecting breeding birds that grow fast. Despite allegations by the CWIF campaign that it causes poorer quality meat based on cherry-picking some limited studies, most of the scientific concensus is that striping doesn't make the meat less palatable or less nutritious. What it does do, however, is make the breast less pleasing to the consumer's eye, which as you would expect caused more than half of shoppers in a recent survey to pass it by. Researchers are still attempting to identify exactly what causes the condition, although we do know that it tends to occur more in heavier birds.
  • Woody breast. Woody breast may or may not be just another presentation of the same underlying condition causing white striping, but it does lead to worse meat quality beyond simple aesthetics. Scientific speculation suggests it might be a combination of lack of oxygen getting to the muscle tissue, matabolic stress, calcium levels in muscle tissue or muscle-fiber changes similar to those a bodybuilder undergoes during training. Whatever the cause, researchers do believe it's at least associated with purposely breeding birds to grow faster and develop relatively large breasts.
  • Green muscle disease.  First known as Oregon disease because it was studied at Oregon State when it first appeared in turkeys almost a half century ago, this condition is now believed to be appearing in broilers because the genetic selection for large breasts causes the bird's body to basically not leave enough room in its anatomy for the large muscles without choking them off, which causes the typical bruising.

Regardless of cause, most of the science agrees no credible evidence has yet been presented that any of the conditions contribute to the true underlying criticism of the CIWF campaign, that they cause the affected birds to suffer—a fact testified to by the reality that researchers can't accurately predict which birds are affected while they're alive. This latest campaign appears to be another manifestation of a new-media public relations technique that's becoming familiar in its predictability: Special-interest groups pushing for changes to food and farming practices in the name of sustainability, animal-welfare and food-justice are doing so via an end-run attack on meat quality and how broiler chickens are bred.

Launched in earnest by a November 2015 white paper by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, advocates have been urging large food companies to require their poultry suppliers purposely use chicken breeds that grow slower. The push to get large food companies to force chicken companies to slow down the growth rate of their birds is following the pattern that has taken "cage-free" egg production from fringe to mainstream in less than a decade. Backed by public relations campaigns by groups like Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit animal-rights group behind several recent undercover animal-cruelty videos which Farmer Goes to Market has reported on, they have slowly but surely pressured the retail chain to buy in. And they have officially claimed victory: Cage-free eggs are now inevitable.

Next up is the so-called "slow chicken" movement. Since March 2016, a string of large retailers have announced they would agree to require the new standards of their suppliers by a future date, saying they would demand their chicken suppliers start breeding for slower growth

Meanwhile, a study released by the National Chicken Council two days ahead of the latest announcement argues the environmental, economic and sustainability implications of raising slower-growing chickens would be negative, not positive. If only one-third of broiler chicken producers switched to a slower-growing breed, NCC's analysis predicts, nearly 1.5 billion more birds would be needed annually to produce the same amount of meat currently produced. That increase in the chicken population would demand an equally tremendous increase in water, land and fuel consumption.

Get ready to be 'volunteered' into the movement to commit to slow-growing chicken, the same way you've volunteered to go to cage-free eggs. If you get campaign pressure applied on your store, we'd like to hear from you. Leave a comment (anonymous is OK), or send us an This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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