Last year, BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) published an article challenging what has been considered an indisputable truth for 40 years: When it comes to heart health, vegetable fats beat animal fats. But new analysis of old data points to a different (and delicious) truth. While polyunsaturated fats—like those found in vegetable oil and margarine—do lower cholesterol, they do not lower the number of deaths from coronary heart disease or any other cause. In fact, the analysis found that "the lower cholesterol fell, the higher the risk of dying: 22% higher for every 30-point fall," according to an article on the STAT website.
Robert Frantz, M.D., a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic, is one of the authors of the BMJ article. He's also the link between the original research and the new analysis. His father Ivan Frantz, M.D., spearheaded a major arm of the study that supported the earlier belief. For the younger Dr. Frantz, the paper was both a professional and personal exercise.
The elder Dr. Frantz, who passed away in 2009, "believed in margarine and not butter," according to Malcolm Gladwell, who shares the story of the Drs. Frantz on the latest episode of his podcast, "Revisionist History." "He thought a healthy diet was one high in vegetable oils and low in saturated fats." But for Gladwell, this story isn't just about lipids and lab tests. It's also a story about fathers and sons and "a child's obligation to his parent."
It's a question he considers with great tenderness. While Gladwell explains the science, he also dives into the process of discovering "the basement tapes"—the material unearthed by the younger Dr. Frantz after receiving a call from Christopher Ramsden, M.D. A researcher at the National Institutes of Health who specializes in "excavating lost studies, particularly those with the potential to challenge mainstream, government-sanctioned health advice," Dr. Ramsden asked Dr. Robert Frantz if he might be aware of any existing data from his father's work on the Minnesota Coronary Experiment, a randomized controlled trial conducted from 1968 to 1973 that produced just one paper, 15 years after the study ended.
That prompted Dr. Frantz, whose father periodically tested his five sons' lipid profiles when they were boys, to search his parents' basement for data. Dr. Frantz knew his parents' home still held "files that had every paper that my father had ever published and every Ph.D. thesis that he'd ever reviewed." After several fact-finding missions, he found what he was looking for in "a moldering old cardboard box" in a back corner of the basement.
The material in that box led to the BMJ paper and to claims that the "discovery and analysis of long-lost data underline how the failure to publish the results of clinical trials can undermine truth," according to STAT. And it led Gladwell to consider that other question: "What is a child's obligation to his parent?" You can hear his answer by listening to the podcast (have a tissue handy).