Opinion: Finding Meaning

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The Myths We Embrace

My education skipped Greek mythology. Of the 12 labors of Hercules, I know just one: mucking out the Aegean stables. I’ve never worried about it—those were myths and we live in the age of science, guided by fact-based truths derived through the scientific method. That’s the vision, but lately I’m not so sure. As an example, consider the recent ill-conceived war on fats.

In the last century, as heart disease exploded into the leading cause of death, authorities arbitrarily put the blame on dietary fat, especially saturated fats common to dairy products. Hearing that plant-sourced fats might be healthier than animal-fats, people converted from butter to margarine (which contained hydrogenated trans-fats, of which we knew little), and trans-fats were added to other food products. Full-fat milk (actually just 3.25% fat) was also modified to reduced-fat (2%), low-fat (1%), and nonfat milks, though without evidence of improved healthfulness.

The fat phobia transformed the food industry. The new mantra was “follow the science,” and commercials with actors in white lab coats explained the science in terms the uninitiated could understand. We thought we were following the science, but fads dressed up as science easily outrun the hard work of discovering truth. The dairymen protested, noting that butter consumption was actually falling as heart disease rose, but they weren’t scientists. A few scientists protested the war on dietary fat as running ahead of real science but they were like Old Testament prophets crying in the wilderness. Dr. Fred Kummerow of the University of Illinois, whose lifestyle got him to 102 years of age, supported the dairymen, arguing it was trans-fats, not butterfat, that drove heart disease.

It took decades but studies proved Kummerow right—factory-made trans-fats were “the worst type of fat for the heart, blood vessels, and rest of the body,” according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Kummerow then petitioned the FDA to remove trans-fats from the (GRAS) list of approved food additives. You may not have noticed but in recent years hydrogenated trans fats, notably margarine, quietly disappeared from store shelfs and food ingredient lists. Recent studies have also reaffirmed the healthfulness of dairy fats—they lengthen rather than shorten human life.

The war on fats was a 20th-century myth posing as science. Though it has been debunked, it takes time for the truth to spread and they’re still selling reduced fat milks. I buy heavy cream by the half-gallon and enjoy it on my homemade breakfast cereal (fresh-ground groats, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, with fruit). Delicious, cheap (compared to store-bought cereals), and healthful.

Like the Greeks, and despite the rise of science, much of what we consider truth today is simply myth. Humans have a “mythopoeic impulse”, a fancy term for our tendency to create faddish myths to deal with the uncertain or unknown. In future years, I predict we’ll hear about COVID-19 mythology, and anthropogenic climate change mythology. Question what you hear. Science is slow, hard work; myths spread like wildfire. 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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