Maybe it’s not a paradox

David Washington

ONCE again, a nutritionist has warned against eating butter.

Beautiful, innocent butter. An ancient, completely natural product which has remained unchanged for centuries.

You don’t need a machine or a factory to make butter – just a cow, a container and some elbow grease. It’s simply cream, churned, either with added salt, or without.

Yet it’s one of the most demonised foods in modern nutritional theory.

The Dietitians Association of Australia recommends, in something called “Healthy Swaps”, to replace butter with “poly and monounsaturated margarine spreads”.

Apart from the loss of flavour, texture and tradition, I suspect this is counter-productive rubbish.

Statistics gathered on national eating habits show how “banning” one food – particularly one as esteemed as butter – is nonsense. There is no evidence that banning butter, or any full-fat dairy food, will make any difference to the health of the population.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) compiles “food security indicators” for different countries. Place the indicators for France and Australia side-by-side and it reveals a fascinating picture.

The most interesting statistic is the list of major food commodities consumed by nations, in terms of contribution to dietary energy supply (DES). The latest figures, for 2006-08, show that in Australia the number-one food was wheat flour (14.2 per cent of DES), followed by refined sugar (12.3), fresh cow milk (5.7 and falling), rapeseed oil (4.9 and rising) and chicken meat (4.6, also on the rise).

The same figures for France show some similarities at the top, with wheat flour and refined sugar heading the list. Then it gets interesting. Number three is cheese from whole cow milk (6.6 per cent of DES), then sunflower oil (5.0) and butter (4.5).

Yes, butter and full-fat cheese – discouraged by dietitians and given a cautionary “amber” light in nutritional guidelines for South Australian school canteens – both make the French top five.

Flip over to the health and nutrition pages of the FAO data, and you’ll find that almost exactly 25 per cent of Australians are obese or overweight.

Only 16.9 per cent of the French are carrying too much fat, according to the FAO.

Taken together with other data which shows coronary heart disease is significantly lower in France than in nations such as Australia and the United States, this is the basis of what nutritionists call “the French paradox”.

The experts just can’t work out why the French, with their love of cheese and butter, are comparatively thin compared to the citizens of other rich Western nations, with our penchant for poly and monounsaturated “spreads” and chicken, much of it fatless, flavourless chicken breast fillets.

Looking closer at the FAO stats, the Australian enjoyment of milk is probably cancelled out by the French love of cheese.

Sunflower oil intake in France is roughly comparable to the rapeseed oil consumption in Australia (mostly likely ingested in the form of processed foods and above-mentioned “spreads”).

The only obvious difference in this list is the French butter versus the Australian chicken.

By volume, the French eat more fat every day than Australians. If butter was a problem, then it would show up in the French statistics, given the comparatively huge amount they eat.

But it doesn’t.

Lots of unconvincing theories have emerged about the French “paradox”, including that, somehow, daily red wine counteracts the negative health effects of the high level of saturated fats in the diet.

There’s also a suggestion that the French prefer smaller portions, one of the arguments of the diet book French Women Don’t Get Fat. The problem with this theory is that, according to the FAO data, the overall daily energy intake of the French is slightly higher than that for Australians.

So they eat at least as much as us, including more fatty foods, and yet they are thinner and have healthier hearts.

One of the things nutritional science has done very badly is provide a comprehensive picture of “food” – as opposed to the individual chemical or nutritional components that make up food products. This explains why we keep wanting to demonise individual foods – but it doesn’t work to make us healthier.

Apart from the obvious implication that our anti-fat obsession might actually be wrong, perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the overall culture of eating.

Instead of fussing over whether kids are eating full-fat dairy or the lighter (more tasteless) version, perhaps we should be looking at the circumstances in which they eat at school and whether that encourages a respectful attitude to eating.

In French schools, the students sit down to a proper multi-course meal, made with fresh ingredients, and enjoyed over a decent amount of time.

The French Kids’ School Lunch Project provides examples of French school lunch menus, most of which would be gobsmacking for Australian children. According to the project, the average cost per lunch for the child is under three Australian dollars.

Consider this menu from a week in January at a school in the town of Versailles.

On Monday, it starts with a sliced radish and corn salad with vinaigrette dressing and black olive garnish, followed by roast guinea fowl, sautéed Provencal vegetables and wheat berries. Then follows a cheese course – on this day, Saint Paulin (a semi-soft, buttery cheese originally made by Trappist monks). Dessert is a vanilla flan and “Cat’s Tongue” cookies.

The dessert and the cheese would not get the “green” light in a South Australian school, according to the “Right Bite” canteen policy.

The French school’s menu seems to get even better as the week progresses. On Thursday, the children start with grated cabbage salad, with hard-boiled egg garnish and shallot dressing, followed by roast beef with sauce Provençale and green peas. The cheese is a goat buchette and dessert is apple cake.

It’s hard to imagine a child who has eaten these meals feeling the need to crab a packet of chips or a chocolate bar on the way home. They’re unlikely to eat a whole packet of crackers on their arrival home.

An article in about the French paradox quotes Eric Rimm, a nutritional epidemiologist at Harvard, as saying that a pleasurable way of eating may be a clue to unraveling the puzzle.

“There is something to eating patterns that makes a difference to overall health,” he says. “It can’t just be the total calories you get at the end of the day.”

Eating slowly, he points out, may make a difference. And then there are psychosocial effects. “In France they eat with large families and social networks, which may be important to peace of mind, which has been linked to coronary disease.” He hesitates, the article reports. “Maybe there are psychological effects to the way they eat in France, too.”

One thing is certain – the French would never, ever, replace butter with “poly and monounsaturated margarine spreads”.

Why would they?

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