How the USDA Screwed Up the American Diet — and Deprived Me of So Much Delicious Butter

The government doesn’t have any idea what foods are good for us. So why doesn’t it just shut its trap?

Illustration by Matt Harrison Clough

Illustration by Matt Harrison Clough

Back in the late 1800s, Emperor Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a substitute for butter that would be cheap enough to be used by the lower classes. The winning spread, invented by a chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès and composed of rendered beef fat and skim milk, became known as margarine.

Mège-Mouriès may have won the prize, but he couldn’t fool the French into eating the stuff — not even the poor French — so he sold the patent to a Dutch company. Later that century, in the face of a beef-tallow shortage (I know; hard to believe), another chemist, from Binghamton, New York, came up with a way to manufacture margarine from a combination of animal and vegetable fats. The Great Depression further reduced the availability of animal fat, while butter shortages during World War II increased the popularity of an all-vegetable-oil version. The margarine market exploded in the 1950s, just in time for me to be born and for my mom to adopt a succession of disgusting butter substitutes — Blue Bonnet, Parkay, Imperial — as our house spreads. Butter became a holiday food, only on the table at Christmas and Easter. This was in keeping with a push by the U.S. government, starting in the 1960s, for Americans to consume less saturated (animal) fat in order to combat heart disease and high cholesterol. This push was bolstered by a study in the late ’60s and early ’70s of two groups of institutionalized mental patients — one fed a typical American diet of the era, the other fed less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vegetable oil. That study showed that the latter diet reduced cholesterol and produced a “favorable trend” when it came to heart disease.

The study’s findings were reanalyzed earlier this year by the National Institutes of Health. The results showed that patients in the massive trial who lowered their cholesterol died from heart disease more often than those who did not. In other words, the research on which the government’s dietary recommendations for the past 50 years were based was exactly wrong.

And that means I spent a lot of years eating disgusting imitation “spreads” when I could have had butter.

IF YOU’VE TRIED to watch what you eat over the past few decades — and who hasn’t? — chances are you’ve come to loathe the federal government, at least when it comes to food advice. The New Yorker recently ran a satirical piece on this topic that was headlined, “Scientists Decide Thing Previously Thought Healthy, Then Unhealthy, Before Healthy Again, Does, in Fact, Cause Cancer,” which is exactly — yeah. Quick, what’s this week’s consensus on diet soda? Tuna fish? Red meat? Red wine? You could get whiplash following the bouncing ball of dietary recommendations issued by Washington bureaucrats. Which raises the question of when any of us ever pay attention to recommendations issued by Washington bureaucrats in other arenas. Really, the speed limit on the Schuylkill Expressway is 55 mph. Do you drive 55 there? If the IRS says you owe $8,000, do you pay $8,000? (Let me give you my accountant’s name if you do.) For most of us, our instinctive urge is to defy whatever Washington tells us. After all, these are the guys who brought us Vietnam, the invasions of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the housing bubble and the TSA.

Yet when those nameless, faceless government bureaucrats decree that we should switch out our Frosted Flakes for oatmeal and cut down on salt and eggs, millions of us do. I wouldn’t trust the federal government to water my plants. Why do I feel differently when it’s telling me what to eat?

Well, for one thing, they’ve been telling me for a long time — all my life, in fact. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first dietary guidelines were issued in 1894. During the Great Depression, it offered four types of food plans, for different income levels. World War II saw the issuance of the “Basic 7” food groups, which had been whittled down by the time I entered school to the “Basic Four” — veggies and fruits, milk and dairy, meats and poultry and fish and eggs, and cereals and breads. Charts of the Basic Four decorated every classroom I ever entered; they were a universal driven into our heads along with the alphabet and Pledge of Allegiance and multiplication tables, never to be forgotten. Even today, seeing a bright, colorful government-constructed food pyramid (or wheel, or plate, or whatever) is like revisiting those happier, simpler times, before quinoa and açai berries and tofu and artisanal toast, when the only thing that was avocado green was your refrigerator.

YOU MAY NOT THINK of it this way, but putting food into your body is an intensely intimate act. That morsel of mackerel is about to enter a portal, undertake a long journey, and be absorbed into your living tissue. It’s literally going to become you. And government has a terrible record when it comes to regulating intensely intimate acts. Remember “Don’t ask, don’t tell”?

Like other long journeys, this one seems like a lark when you’re young and lithe and have regular bowel habits even when you’re cramming down cheeseburgers and poutine and fried mac-and-cheese balls. As you advance in age, though, the journey becomes more perilous. You become more vulnerable. And you start to pay attention to stuff like trans fats and butylated hydroxyanisole and high fructose corn syrup, because you don’t want to die, even though you figure all that stuff must be safe because the companies that made your food can’t want you to die, because they’d lose a customer. Right?

Besides, you have the government looking out for you. It’s the government that tells the food companies they have to list the ingredients on the label of your granola bar. But do you know what “all-natural” actually means? “Organic”? “Made with whole grain”? Did you know cage-free chickens can legally live their entire lives indoors? Surely you’ve busted out laughing upon encountering a cup of yogurt that’s boldly labeled GLUTEN-FREE.

The fact is, government-regulated nutrition labeling is worse than useless, because even nutrition experts can’t agree on what we should be ingesting. The New York Times recently asked hundreds of nutritionists whether the items on a long list of foods were healthy or not. Their answers were pretty damned ambiguous. If 60 percent of nutritionists say steak is a healthy food, do you eat it? What if 57 percent say cheddar cheese is good for you? (Only 28 percent think you should be chomping that granola bar, by the way.)

Take coffee. Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve been told that coffee causes cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and a host of other ills. Now I’m told the more coffee I drink, the better — that if I down two to four cups a day, I have a reduced risk of death from all causes. I’ll actually live longer. Lucky for me, coffee was the one item for which I never bought the government line. Hell, its name supposedly comes from the Arabic for “to lack hunger.” For someone whose parents first hauled her to the diet doctor at age 10, cutting out coffee never was an option.

And while we’re on the subject of dieting, the one thing the government was crystal-clear on, even as its recommendations on coffee and salt and peanut butter wobbled back and forth, was that we all should lose weight. According to its Body Mass Index charts, two-thirds of Americans today are overweight, including my daughter, who in preparation for her wedding last August dieted herself rail-thin. When I expressed, very delicately, my concern that she was overdoing it, she grimly informed me that the BMI chart showed she had another 10 pounds to lose. It’s right there on the Centers for Disease Control’s website: A person who’s five-foot-nine, which she is, and clocks in at more than 169 pounds is overweight. Overweight. Not a good thing, right? Except that nearly 100 studies of some three million people have now shown that overweight people live longer than those of normal (or as the government puts it, “healthy”) weight, or, for that matter, the underweight. Get the hell out of my head, CDC!

You know what else? It turns out that all my years of faithful dieting, of gaining and losing and regaining and then fighting like hell to shed those extra 10 or 20 (or 30) pounds, have royally screwed me, because such yo-yo dieting messed up my metabolism and made me more likely to develop diabetes, the scourge the U.S. government created by telling us the big, broad bottom of the food pyramid should be made up of pasta and taco shells and rice and bread.

And why did the USDA slap all those carbs at the bottom? Because lobbyists from Big Agriculture didn’t want corn and rice and wheat to lose their farming subsidies. They still don’t. Did you know that less than one percent of those subsidies go toward vegetables and fruits, while 60 percent go to support production of grains? Yet the government’s own research shows that Americans with the highest consumption of federally subsidized foods are significantly more likely to be obese, have belly fat, and have abnormal levels of cholesterol and blood sugar. There you are, my friends: The government has your back!

Look, I know this stuff is hard. Science is always changing as researchers learn more about how our bodies work, and that means the guidelines need adjusting. But given its history, couldn’t the USDA be a little less authoritarian and a little more, I don’t know — tentative? Humble? “Here’s what we think might be best for you now, maybe, given our current state of knowledge” instead of EAT THIS OR DIE? And it wouldn’t hurt to get those subsidies way more in line with what it’s telling us to consume.

IN 2011, the USDA replaced MyPyramid with something called MyPlate, a visual aid that consists of (duh) a plate divided in half, with each of those halves then divided again. The biggest space on your plate is for vegetables. The next largest is reserved for grains; then come fruit and protein. There’s a cup beside the plate for dairy. The government says your dairy should be low-fat or fat-free despite evidence that dairy fat protects against diabetes and obesity, but hey, never mind.

The National School Lunch Program, which feeds 31 million kids every year, only allows schools to serve low-fat or skim milk. There’s a bill in Congress now that would make major changes to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the 2010 legislation championed by Michelle Obama that’s riled everybody from the School Nutrition Association (which says the bill costs $4 million a day in wasted food) to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (who found 60 percent of fresh veggies being thrown away) to high-schoolers in Kansas who put out a video spoof of Fun’s “We Are Young” called “We Are Hungry” to protest the cafeteria changes, which limit their lunch calories to 850 or less per day. (The video shows them fainting from starvation.) The HHFKA is the perfect example of the government’s fraught relationship with food.

Because despite all the healthy-eating advice the USofA has been doling out since the 1960s, Americans aren’t living longer. We’re actually dying sooner. We’re immensely fatter. We’ve got diabetes in droves, high blood pressure in heaps, Himalayas of cholesterol. Maybe we should return to the diets of our forefathers in, oh, say, 1938. What did they live on? Red meat. Grilled cheese. Mashed potatoes. Layer cakes. No quinoa, no kombucha, no kale. Such a regression was the recommendation of investigative journalist Nina Teicholz in a New York Times op-ed last year: “Since the very first nutritional guidelines to restrict saturated fat and cholesterol were released by the American Heart Association in 1961,” she wrote, “Americans have been the subjects of a vast, uncontrolled diet experiment with disastrous consequences. … [W]e would be wise to return to what worked better for previous generations: a diet that included fewer grains, less sugar, and more animal foods like meat, full-fat dairy and eggs.” The dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University recently told Time magazine that saturated fat is “kind of neutral” in the human diet, and that “low-fat turkey meat or a bagel or cornflakes or soda is worse for you than butter.” To think of all the turkey I’ve eaten while trying to be good.

If any other entity was as arbitrary, unscientific, inconsistent and just plain wrong as the government is when it comes to food, we’d laugh it out of town. But why shouldn’t the feds keep throwing bad advice our way? There isn’t any downside, and every couple of years some graphic designer gets to dream up a whole new way of sharing all that useless advice with us. The megafarmers stay happy. The schoolkids stay hungry. We average Joes and Joannas beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into obesity. You know what might make the government think twice before issuing its next food fatwa? A bill that takes the $4 million a day that gets tossed in the school-cafeteria trash and uses it to pay damages to those who’ve been burned by the government’s diet advice. I’d settle for, oh, say, a hundred bucks for every year I went without butter.

Published as “Butter Me Up” in the October 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.