Opinion: Finding Meaning 

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In Defense of Heretics 

By Skip Hellewell

A heretic is someone who holds an opinion at odds with what is widely accepted. That said, I confess to the following heresy: In areas of complexity, much of what we believe just isn’t so. Consider two contrasting examples: cigarettes and butter. Both are said to be a cause of the 20th-century heart disease epidemic. One was, the other was just the opposite.   

A little over a century ago, cigarette tobacco was reformulated for a milder, more addictive smoke. During World War I, soldiers took up smoking, a habit not easily stopped. Through clever advertising, smoking was made to seem glamorous and spread through society. There was a memorable scene in the 1942 movie “Now Voyager,” starring Bette Davis, filmed on the patio of Laguna’s Victor Hugo restaurant (now Las Brisas) in which the male star puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights both, then in an intimate gesture, passes one to Bette Davis’ character who exhales a cloud of smoke.  

Smoking peaked in 1964, coincidentally the year Dr. Luther L. Terry, Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service, released the first report on Smoking and Health, linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. Dr. Terry may have been called a heretic, but a once glamorous habit was becoming pathetic and, since 2017, is illegal in Laguna’s public areas.  

Now consider butter, a food made from cow’s milk since prehistoric times. In the late 19th century, cheaper versions of butter were made from beef tallow, combined with plant oils. Advances in hydrogenation (a process where hydrogen is bubbled through heated plant oils in the presence of a catalyst) removed the need for animal fats, and modern margarine was born. Cheaper and said to be healthier, hydrogenated plant oils became common ingredients in factory and fast foods. Margarine consumption passed butter in the 50s—ominously, a time of rising heart disease.  

The problem was that hydrogenation created “trans fats,” labeled many years later in a Harvard School of Public Health report as “the worst type of fat for humans.” There’s a hero in this story, a Dr. Fred Kummerow, who, in 1957, published a report noting the presence of trans fats in the clogged arteries of dead heart attack victims. Nobody listened to Kummerow, he was just 33, but through criticism and ridicule, he doggedly continued his fight to expose the dangers of trans fats. Long story short, in 2009, Kummerow sent the FDA a 3,000-word citizen petition citing the accumulated evidence that boldly concluded, “I request to ban trans fats from the American diet.” By now, trans fats were linked not only to heart disease but other ills, including type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.  

The FDA had a duty to respond to Dr. Kummerow within 180 days but moved glacially, as a 2015 New York Times article recounted, “The long goodbye: FDA ruling will eliminate trans fats from U.S. foods.” Dr. Kummerow, who enjoyed eggs, milk, cream, and butter while avoiding hydrogenated oils, died in 2017 at the remarkable age of 102. It had been sixty years since his first trans fats report. An observant person will have noticed that margarine has quietly disappeared from dairy shelves, labels virtuously tout “no trans fats,” and scientific articles noting the healthfulness of butter are appearing.  

There’s a lesson to be learned here. In areas of complexity, resist the temptation to take the easy path and follow the herd. Ask questions and have the courage to be a heretic. There’s meaning in that. 

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ’50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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