Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics, and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health
by Denise Minger
Primal Nutrition, 2014
Death by Food Pyramid contains so many highlights, so much good information, and gets so many things right, it is hard to review it without wanting to reproduce it. From the skewed science and agenda-driven government agencies to the confused and confusing experts and their contradictory and confounded studies and suggestions, page after page exposes the unfolding history of diet in the second half of the twentieth century in all its tragic madness and folly.
On every major issue—saturated fats, cholesterol, PUFAs, and the all important fat-soluble vitamins and the work of Weston A. Price—Minger is not only on the mark, but demonstrates her skill for exploring and explaining the more complex and nuanced sides of these issues ably and simply. More important, the book does an excellent job at equipping and educating readers so that they can continue their nutrition-education journey themselves.
The work begins more like a historical detective novel than a flat outline of modern nutrition, with the USDA food pyramid being the prime suspect, and dozens of ancillary players filling out the story line. The plot, full of twists and turns, will entertain, enlighten and enrage readers, as we discover that the sacred food pyramid and food system foisted upon us by government and science is none too scientific nor sacred; in fact, it is the product of powerful industries, political strong-arming and assorted scoundrels, aided and abetted by shoddy science.
After cracking open the history of the food pyramid in the opening three chapters, Minger takes a brief detour in chapters four and five to equip readers with important tools for evaluating nutritional and medical research. In these chapters she does an excellent job demonstrating just how third-rate and shady modern science can be, and how dangerously unreliable so much of it is for drawing conclusions about human health and diet. Her discussion and display of the lab rat diet (page 75), which most people have probably never seen, packed with chemicals and processed components that are unrecognizable as food, is just one way she annihilates the public’s blind trust in modern research and the outlandish claims it creates in the mainstream media. “So when a news story says something like ‘Highfat diet in mice causes [terrible illness],’ it really means researchers fed mice a diet of soybean oil, hydrogenated coconut oil, sugar, and maltodextrin to make them obese, and then studied the effects of that obesity” (page 76).
Minger moves on to some of the most infamous animal and observational studies of all time and the conclusions they spawned: the Lipid Hypothesis (chapter six), the Diet Heart Hypothesis (chapter seven), and the Framingham Study (chapter eight). Each is covered in a compelling manner, with attention to placing each key researcher in his proper historical setting to better understand the limits of science at that time, the biases of the researchers themselves and the pressures they faced. This probing analysis provides the reader with a better understanding of how modern dietary dogma rolled down the wrong track to a perilous dead end.
Throughout the work, Minger shows a gift in finding primary source quotes that stick with the reader and summarize important sections of the book succinctly, such as this one from Yudkin regarding the work of Ancel Keys: “Another way of stating these findings is to say that, if you wish to increase the number of people dying from accidents, violence, cancer or strokes, then give them a diet low in cholesterol and fat” (page 127). Not only do low-fat diets seem crazy, they make people crazy!
Another choice gem to display Minger’s skill in summarizing long sections with memorable quotes from the researchers themselves, is this one from William Castelli, who had served as the director of the famous Framingham Study starting in 1979, about the findings of the study: “In Framingham, MA, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower people’s serum cholesterol . . . the opposite of what the equations provided by Hegsted et al. and Keys et al. would predict” (page 143).
The book then moves on to the concurrent rise in PUFA consumption that occurred from the turn of the last century into an explosion by the late 1900s.
As Minger wryly remarks about processed oils and their origins: “But one man’s trash had become another man’s treasure, so to speak, and P&G [Procter and Gamble] 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” (page 153, emphasis mine). If this doesn’t succinctly show what PUFAs really are and why they are so damaging, what else will?
Moreover, Minger also displays how companies took advantage of the insecurities that had gripped Americans through the propaganda of modern advertising and social engineering, “The company deftly played upon women’s burning desire to be ‘modern'” (page 154). She also reveals the lengths these industrial giants went to ensure the public was not warned about the dangers of these pseudo-foods.
The American Heart Association created “fifteen thousand pamphlets with a carefully worded demotion of trans fats that never saw 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. . . 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” (page 157).
The closing of Death by Food Pyramid is sure to delight fans of Weston Price, as he crowns the entire last chapter, serving as the answer to how we can reclaim our health and find trustworthy dietary information in an age of special interests and pseudo-science. Unlike many writers, who include references to Price mostly to rubber stamp their own work or to try to win a hearing for views that are incompatible with his research, Minger gives his work a fair and accurate presentation and endorsement, including covering some of Price’s most important observations, such as his comparison of matching population groups to see firsthand the deleterious effects of industrial food.
We can only hope Death by Food Pyramid will follow in the steps of Minger’s widely popular writings on The China Study and reach millions of readers with common sense, scientifically sound, historically wise, and healthpromoting dietary advice. Two thumbs up and a big thank you to Denise Minger for all her work.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2014.