For all the complaining we do, life is pretty good. It’s natural to want to stick around as long as you possibly can — and to seek a nutritional edge in pursuit of a long, healthy life. But if you listen to all the nutritional noise out there, you’re apt to hear a cacophony of conflicting advice that you’d probably rather tune out.
Case in point: These five common food myths. At various times, all were taken for granted by the people we trust to shape our opinions and protect our health. Today, thanks to the power of science and common sense, all are known to be dead false. Which “myth du jour” is your favorite?
1. Eggs Will Kill You
This one was around for a while, so you probably remember it well. Way back in the 1960s, when the medical community made the connection between elevated blood cholesterol levels and heart disease, health-conscious people started turning on any food product with naturally occurring cholesterol. That’s most dairy products, including butter, whole milk, and — oh yeah — eggs. Eggs were thought to be the worst, actually, because their yolks have off-the-charts levels of cholesterol.
But it turns out that eggs are actually good for you. See, not all cholesterol is equal. There are actually two types of blood cholesterol: LDL and HDL. As the “bad” kind, LDL does lead to clogged arteries, strokes and heart attacks. “Good” HDL, on the other hand, reduces levels of LDL and can improve cardiovascular health. Needless to say, eggs are chock full of this “good” cholesterol. Once researchers realized that people who ate lots of eggs had high cholesterol because they were eating lots of butter and bacon too, they backed off the “eggs are bad” thing. These days, eggs are great — just boiled or fried in healthy cottonseed oil, not heavy butter.
2. There’s No Such Thing as “Good” Vegetable Oil
It seems like every vegetable oil has gone through a “black sheep” phase. First there was cottonseed oil (CSO), which got a bad rap back in the 1950s and 60s as an “industrial” frying oil. Then there was rapeseed oil, which was thought to harbor harmful toxins. And then there was coconut oil, which in the 1980s had just a slightly better reputation than crack cocaine.
What do all these oils have in common? They’re now known to be safe — and, particularly in the case of cottonseed oil, healthy — when used in the right way. Rapeseed oil, for instance, was reborn as canola oil when a group of clever Canadian scientists found a way to process it into a form with fewer toxins and more healthy fats. Today, it’s one of the most widely used vegetable oils, and no one gets sick from it.
Like eggs, coconut oil suffered from a simple misunderstanding: Without getting too technical, its fat profile was thought to be extremely bad for your cardiovascular health. These days, virgin coconut oil is a celebrity favorite, used in everything from omelets to face lotion. Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Kim Kardashian all use it to keep their skin moist and youthful.
Cottonseed oil got the worst rap of all, maligned for decades as good for nothing but cattle feed and early death. It turns out that CSO has more healthy fats than just about any other type of oil, and its stability makes it a first-rate cooking aid. Oh, how the tables have turned.
3. Carbs Are Way Better than Fat
Remember when you could eat all the pasta you wanted? Those were the days. Too bad they’re gone forever.
Around the same time that eggs and vegetable oil were getting crushed in health-food circles, bread and pasta were the golden children of nutritionists everywhere. They formed the base of the food pyramid, crowding out obviously healthy things like fruits and vegetables. But starting in the late 1990s, studies emerged connecting carbs to weight gain, diabetes and other serious health problems. Simple sugars, such as those found in soda pop and sweet treats, were even more problematic.
At the same time, nutritionists began touting protein and healthy fats, like those found in cottonseed oil and other vegetable oils. Who knew that tempura fried in clean, tasty cottonseed oil would one day be deemed healthier than a bowl of pasta with red sauce?
4. No Salt, Ever
Back in medieval times, European explorers traveled to the ends of the earth for a little bit of salt. These days, it’s one of the most abundant seasonings known to man. But for a long time, it’s been basically off limits.
To be clear, salt is in just about everything, so it’s impossible to avoid completely. But since it causes the body to retain water, it can lead to high blood pressure and related health problems. For a while, doctors and nutritionists followed the “better safe than sorry” rule — since salt seemed to cause problems for folks with hypertension and high cholesterol, they deemed it unsafe for everyone except those suffering from low blood pressure (which, though not as common as hypertension, can be just as serious).
It’s becoming clearer that this was an overreaction. By itself, salt isn’t bad. Its negative effects typically come to the fore when it’s combined with LDL cholesterol, complex carbs, sugar, and other unhealthy nutrients. The lesson here, as in so many things, is moderation.
5. Hydrogenated Oils Are the Wave of the Future
After that whole “all vegetable oil is bad” notion was put to bed once and for all, a strange thing happened. Instead of embracing the natural flavoring power of cottonseed oil, food manufacturers invested millions of dollars in an artificial process, called hydrogenation, that transformed it — and other varieties that lack CSO’s most desirable properties — into an even more stable, but far less healthy, form.
Though the process of hydrogenation is technical, the concept is just as it sounds. It involves bubbling hydrogen through the oil at high temperatures and speeds to change its chemical properties and render it more stable and rigid. Unfortunately, it also creates unnatural molecules known as trans fatty acids (or simply trans fats).
Our bodies can’t break down or store these molecules like naturally occurring fatty acid, so they tend to build up in our blood and tissues over time, leading to problems like heart disease and blocked arteries. But because hydrogenation had so many benefits for food companies, no one bothered to check up on these risks. In fact, for a long time, hydrogenated oils were touted as the answer to everything from stale Twinkies to soggy buns.
The party’s over now, of course. The FDA mandated the inclusion of trans fats on nutrition labels from 2006 on, and hydrogenation is far less common than before. Ironically, many hydrogenated oils have been replaced by pure, non-hydrogenated cottonseed oil: Despite being one of the healthiest oils around, CSO’s chemical properties — its high smoke point, stability, neutral flavor and more — most closely resemble those of the artificially hydrogenated varieties that it’s replacing. That’s great news for your heart…and your taste buds.
What’s your favorite food myth? Share your thoughts here.