It is a political minefield when government takes stands on nutrition issues that will help or harm specific sets of producers. That became very clear 70 years ago when the Iowa legislature forced Iowa State University to fire one of its best econ professors, Theodore Schultz, a future Nobel Prize winner, because a graduate student opined that, during the war, at least, margarine was an acceptable substitute for butter.
Dairy farmers still had great power there at that time, and Schultz was axed, to the eternal shame of a good university. And before the scandal was over, half of the economists in a once fine department had left in protest. The irony is that as Iowa dairy farming continued to shrink, the use of corn and soybean oils for cooking, both as liquids and in solid forms — in other words, margarine — grew enormously, and Iowa had a comparative advantage here.
But that was not apparent to legislators or their constituents in 1943. They saw this new food guidance, coming from a government college, as a threat to their livelihoods and acted to stop it.
That sort of controversy continues, as detailed in the Oct. 6 Washington Post. The federal government is conducting a periodic revision of its “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” New research indicates that its decades-old recommendations to reduce consumption of saturated animal fats, especially butterfat from milk, may be wrong.
If the new guidelines reverse the long-asserted advice to, for example, drink skim milk instead of whole, how would this affect dietary consumption patterns, household spending on food and the prices of affected farm products? And in an age when increasing numbers of people argue for reduced government, why is government even weighing in on what people should or should not eat?
As with the Iowa example, Minnesota dairy farming connections in all of this involve a high degree of irony. Given its climate and topography, dairy farming has always been important in my state’s economy. Local farmer-owned dairy cooperatives took root here, and one of the nation’s largest modern co-op-owned food processors, Land O’Lakes, which has now expanded far beyond its original concentration on butter and cheese, is based here. But the research that led to decades of official government dogma that Americans eat less butter and drink less milk fat was rooted in the University of Minnesota.
Ancel Keys, a physiology prof at the U, was a leading 20th century nutritional researcher, studying the physiological processes of starvation, developing the military’s K-ration in World War II and evaluating relationships between the composition of diets and diseases. He made the initial assertions of links between consumption of saturated animal fats and heart disease in the 1950s. Later in life, he and his wife popularized the “Mediterranean diet” that was low in such fats. If anyone can be credited — or blamed — for the move to reduce consumption of animal fats, it is Keys.
Many other researchers contributed to this work, so the findings that led to government guidelines to consume less such fats were broad-based. But not all scientists agreed, and, over the intervening decades, additional research has revealed that the studies on which the original recommendations were based had deep flaws. The role of fats is far more complex than once thought. Indeed, butter and other animal fats may well play positive roles in human health, and reducing their consumption may have worsened the health of many people rather than improved it.
In the meantime, changing food consumption patterns, motivated in part by the government guidelines and the research underlying it, did affect U.S. farmers, including farmers in all the major dairy states, which now include Idaho. Butter consumption fell relative to what it would have been had the widely accepted new nutritional findings not been made. Per capita cheese consumption rose, largely because of increased eating of pizza and Mexican dishes that contained it. But usage might have been even higher if not for the official dicta against animal fats.
Dairy farmers and processors lobbied against the guidelines through their industry associations. Elected officials from dairy states did fight measures to reduce levels of dairy products in military mess halls and in school lunches. But this was all swimming against a very strong current, and such efforts always were dismissed by many as selfish protection of opportunities for financial profit.
Now dietary advice is turning on the basis of new scientific research. Perhaps the dairy industry was, after all, the innocent victim of unfounded scientific conclusions that were widely propagated by an interfering nanny state. Perhaps the dairy industry will benefit if the guidelines are revised. Perhaps there was some lobbying going on to help government help the market.
Health research is good and its results should reach the public. People’s food choices will always be shaped to some extent by public awareness of the latest and most accepted nutritional findings. But should government take an official position on what we eat? Those who advocate a smaller regulatory role say no.
Government got into food and health issues more than a century ago as part of the Progressive Era’s reaction to the marketing of unsafe food and drugs. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle,” which exposed workplace and health abuses in the meat industry, was key in this effort. Although the economic theory had not yet been detailed, curbing the sale of tainted food corrected an “asymmetric information” problem that made the economy at the time less efficient.
From stopping the sale of bad food to promoting the eating of good food was just a couple of steps. The process was advanced during two world wars, during which the government had a clear interest in changing public consumption patterns to facilitate military logistics. And so the role of government as an arbiter of healthy nutrition simply grew over time. It was never very controversial. And now, official nutritional guidance is shaped not only by what’s good for us as individuals but also in part by calculations of the energy efficiency and greenhouse gas contributions of food alternatives.
Guidelines are just that, and not legal mandates for individual behavior. Information is good, in general, and one should give weight to the most widely accepted scientific research, whether it be on butter, climate change or the safety of vaccines. But the whole sequence of official denunciation of animal fats followed by their official rehabilitation, and how this affected the market, should make us think about the whole process.
St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.