A convincing case for getting 'real'

Special to The Times

In 1939, a Canadian dentist named Weston Price published "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration," a seminal work of nutritional anthropology that purported to show why isolated cultures had no tooth decay and less arthritis, diabetes, cancer and heart disease than people living in industrialized nations. All 12 communities that Price studied -- including dairy farmers in Switzerland's Loetschental Valley, Maoris in New Zealand and Indians in Peru -- had one thing in common: They ate whole foods uncontaminated by sugar, refined flour or hydrogenated oils.

Though Price's book was initially lauded by his colleagues (and taught in anthropology courses at Harvard), it has been largely ignored by the mainstream medical profession over the last 50 years. However, his principles -- which include eating raw, unpasteurized milk, cheese and yogurt; eating grass-fed beef, free-roaming chickens and wild fish; and above all, staying away from industrial foods -- are enjoying a renaissance among a small but growing legion of nutritionally savvy citizens.

Nina Planck is one of Price's foremost disciples. In her new book, "Real Food," Planck, who grew up on a vegetable farm in Virginia, cites an array of studies that have, in the intervening 70 years, supported the prescient dentist's theories. It is a highly readable (if at times repetitive) summary of the current scientific evidence for her thesis that "industrial" foods are to blame for ailments as varied as heart disease and infertility.

Planck's overarching premise -- that trans fats (mostly derived from partially hydrogenated oils) are to blame for our epidemic rates of heart disease and cancer -- is hardly shocking. More controversial are her assertions that many of the "real foods" we've been taught to fear are harmless. Planck argues that:

* Saturated fats found in animal products are good for you;

* Raw milk is nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk;

* Lard is good for you;

* Coconut oil is good for you.

A writer making such claims should have a solid pedigree. Although not trained as a nutritionist, Planck has firsthand experience with real food. Raised on grass-fed beef, raw, unpasteurized milk and the nutritional advice of whole foods pioneer Adelle Davis, she founded London's first producer-only farmers market in 1999 and returned to New York City to run the Union Square Greenmarket. She has recently opened two of her own "real food" markets in lower Manhattan.

Planck's main argument -- that saturated fats are healthful in moderation -- is not as far-fetched as it seems. Fat is necessary to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K and minerals, such as calcium, that are in animal products. Therefore, Planck says, skim milk is a nutritionally inferior drink. "Traditional" fats (naturally obtained from animals and from plant sources such as avocado and nuts) are also essential for developing the brain, building cell walls, protecting the immune system and encouraging proper digestion. And whereas polyunsaturated vegetable oils oxidize at high temperatures, becoming rancid -- and carcinogenic, Planck argues -- saturated fats are stable, making them healthier for cooking.

More controversially, Planck takes on the mainstream cholesterol establishment, arguing convincingly that LDL, or bad, cholesterol does not actually cause heart disease but rather is a symptom of heart disease. She quotes several studies that show no correlation between high LDL and heart disease and one that even shows that older men and women with high LDL live longer than peers with low or normal LDL.

Also harder to digest (forgive the pun) is Planck's fervent ode to raw, unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization became law by the early 1950s after outbreaks of scarlet fever, typhoid and tuberculosis were traced to milk from unsanitary "distillery dairies" in New York and other cities. This was a mistake, according to Planck. Pasteurization might kill most pathogens that may be lurking in milk, but it removes many wholesome ingredients too: vitamins A, B6 and C; folic acid; beneficial bacteria; and lactic acid (which aids in immunity and fights bacteria such as Staphylococcus). Pasteurization also damages the enzymes phosphatase (required to absorb calcium) and lactase (which breaks down the lactose in milk). This seems a plausible explanation for the rise of so-called milk allergies or lactose intolerance.

"Clean raw milk from a healthy cow, carefully handled by a conscientious farmer, is safe," Planck tells her readers, who at this point may be wondering, "What about brucellosis, Campylobacter, E. coli and salmonella?" Other than advising readers to buy raw milk at a certified, "sparkling clean" dairy where cows are regularly inspected for tuberculosis and brucellosis, Planck offers little if any caution to pregnant women, the elderly and other immune-suppressed individuals for whom raw milk may be a grave risk.

One of Planck's most damning critiques against pasteurized milk is that the vitamins are taken out during pasteurization. They are put back in, of course -- but is that really so bad? Planck's argument here is weak: "There is some evidence that both synthetic vitamins [A and D12, which are added back into pasteurized milk] are toxic in excess." This assertion is not footnoted. She also argues that pasteurization creates oxidized cholesterol, alters milk proteins and damages omega-3 fats, but again offers no hard data.

In general, Planck's assertions are backed up with copious evidence: books by nutritionists and doctors, quotes from experts and physicians, studies from respected medical journals. And she has a talent for presenting hard-to-grasp biological processes in plain English (LDL and HDL are "little boats with a waxy cargo" that "ferry cholesterol around the body"). Her book is easy to navigate, with sidebars, a glossary and resources for the newly converted.

Will American readers become real-food converts? As we've already seen from Erik Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" and Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me," most U.S. consumers have just two priorities when it comes to food: It must be cheap and it must be filling. Though eating "real food" makes good, practical sense, many of the foods Planck recommends are not cheap and aren't always easy to find.

But who knows? Wal-Mart now sells organic produce, Coke and PepsiCo have just agreed to remove their highest-calorie beverages from school vending machines, and three of the nation's biggest conventional meat producers (Tyson, Swift & Co., and National Beef) have recently introduced antibiotic- and hormone-free beef.

Planck has written an important book, and her timing may be perfect. With any luck, "Real Food" will resonate with Americans (starved for so long on low-fat diets) and bring Weston Price to a much larger audience than he could ever have imagined.

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