Some things in life are near-certainties, one of which is the regular reports issued by the Harvard School of Public Health bashing anyone who chooses to include meat in their diet.

You’re familiar with Ben Franklin, right? One of the Founding Fathers, a signer of both the Declaration of Independence (which he helped to write) and the Constitution, publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanac and the inventor of bifocals and the Franklin stove.

You’re familiar with Ben Franklin, right? One of the Founding Fathers, a signer of both the Declaration of Independence (which he helped to write) and the Constitution, publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanac and the inventor of bifocals and the Franklin stove.

But you may not know that he was one of 17 children in his family, that he started selling pamphlets on the street at age 12, wrote an advice column as a teenager under the pseudonym Silence Dogood and began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper at age 23.

Of course, he’s also famous for his many pithy sayings, such as, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” However, the operative phrase that connects Franklin with today’s column is one of his most famous — and oft repeated — quotes: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

A slight paraphrasing of that gem leads off this examination of yet another diet-health controversy: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes — and an article in the Harvard School of Public Health newsletter bashing red meat.”

This week’s anti-industry offering from our friends at HSPH is headlined, “Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat linked with lower risk of heart disease.”

Let’s be clear: When the phrase “saturated fat” appears in any HSPH publication, just substitute “red meat” and it will make the point of the article explicit.

That said, the key word here is “linked,” which means that the researchers discovered an association between certain behaviors and certain outcomes — not cause-and-effect; merely an association.

That’s point No. 1. We’ll get to the other critical point in a moment, but first, a summary of how this study, which was published in the Oct. 28, 2014, issue of the clinical journal Circulation, was conducted.

The HSPH researchers reviewed 13 cohort studies (groups of people) totaling 310,602 individuals who suffered from 12,479 cardiovascular disease (CHD) events, including 5,882 deaths from heart disease. The data suggested that people who swap 5 percent of their calories from saturated fat (red meat and butter) for the polyunsaturated fat found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds can lower their risk of heart disease by 9 percent.

“There has been much confusion and sensational headlines about the role of different types of fat in CHD,” said Frank Hu, HSPH Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and senior author of the study. “Randomized clinical trials HSPH have shown that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces total and LDL cholesterol. And our comprehensive meta-analysis provides clear evidence to support the benefits of consuming polyunsaturated fat as a replacement for saturated fat.”

Let me interject here to note that total cholesterol as a marker of heart disease has been thoroughly disproven — mainly because the average person produces two-thirds of the essential cholesterol they need right in their own bodies. Eat less cholesterol; your body manufactures more. Eat more, your body produces less. So bragging about lowering cholesterol hardly represents a major milestone for cardiac health.

Assessing the actual risk

Now to the heart of the study’s conclusions — pun intended. The HSPH article stated that a person’s intake of linoleic acid, which is found in liquid fat like soybean and safflower oils, is inversely associated with the risk of heart disease in a “dose-response manner” — meaning that a higher intake of linoleic acid results in a lower risk of heart disease. In practice, the authors suggested replacing butter, lard and the fat from red meat with liquid plant oils in cooking and at in meals.

Okay, but remember, we’re talking about a 9 percent lower risk. That’s not exactly earth-shattering.

Second, how does one replace red meat with liquid oil? I get it that many major food marketers have a vested interest in getting people to switch from butter to margarine, but replacing red meat generally requires something a little more palatable than cooking oil.

And let’s not forget that for decades, as Americans were urged by governmental, academic and medical authorities to dump animal foods like butter in favor of processed, hydrogenated, artificially flavored margarine, obesity rates have soared, as have diabetes and other chronic diseases associated with maintaining less-than-ideal weight. Most of those processed manufactured substitutes for natural foods for years also contained harmful trans fats resulting from the necessary hydrogenation of liquid oils to turn them into solids.

So just for comparison, let’s compare ingredient statements:

  • Butter: Butterfat and salt.
  • Margarine: Water, vegetable oil (blended soybean oil, palm oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil), modified corn starch, salt, nonfat yogurt powder, mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, calcium disodium, lactic acid, artificial flavor, vitamin A and beta carotene.

And we’re supposed to believe that a processed concoction like margarine is healthier than butter? Or that replacing meat with processed corn or soybean oil is essential to optimal nutrition? Really?

As Franklin once wrote, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”

When it comes to common sense about good nutrition, let’s be neither ignorant nor stupid.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.