A four-decades-old study — recently discovered in a dusty basement — has raised new questions about longstanding dietary advice and the perils of saturated fat in the American diet.
The research, known as the Minnesota Coronary Experiment, was a major controlled clinical trial conducted from 1968 to 1973, which studied the diets of more than 9,000 people at state mental hospitals and a nursing home.
During the study, which was paid for by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and led by Dr. Ivan Frantz Jr. of the University of Minnesota Medical School, researchers were able to tightly regulate the diets of the institutionalized study subjects. Half of those subjects were fed meals rich in saturated fats from milk, cheese and beef. The remaining group ate a diet in which much of the saturated fat was removed and replaced with corn oil, an unsaturated fat that is common in many processed foods today. The study was intended to show that removing saturated fat from people’s diets and replacing it with polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils would protect them against heart disease and lower their mortality.
So what was the result? Despite being one of the largest controlled clinical dietary trials of its kind ever conducted, the data were never fully analyzed.
Several years ago, Christopher E. Ramsden, a medical investigator at the National Institutes of Health, learned about the long-overlooked study. Intrigued, he contacted the University of Minnesota in hopes of reviewing the unpublished data. Dr. Frantz, who died in 2009, had been a prominent scientist at the university, where he studied the link between saturated fat and heart disease. One of his closest colleagues was Ancel Keys, an influential scientist whose research in the 1950s helped establish saturated fat as public health enemy No. 1, prompting the federal government to recommend low-fat diets to the entire nation.
“My father definitely believed in reducing saturated fats, and I grew up that way,” said Dr. Robert Frantz, the lead researcher’s son and a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. “We followed a relatively low-fat diet at home, and on Sundays or special occasions, we’d have bacon and eggs.”
The younger Dr. Frantz made three trips to the family home, finally discovering the dusty box marked “Minnesota Coronary Survey,” in his father’s basement. He turned it over to Dr. Ramsden for analysis.
The results were a surprise. Participants who ate a diet low in saturated fat and enriched with corn oil reduced their cholesterol by an average of 14 percent, compared with a change of just 1 percent in the control group. But the low-saturated fat diet did not reduce mortality. In fact, the study found that the greater the drop in cholesterol, the higher the risk of death during the trial.
The findings run counter to conventional dietary recommendations that advise a diet low in saturated fat to decrease heart risk. Current dietary guidelines call for Americans to replace saturated fat, which tends to raise cholesterol, with vegetable oils and other polyunsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol.
While it is unclear why the trial data had not previously been fully analyzed, one possibility is that Dr. Frantz and his colleagues faced resistance from medical journals at a time when questioning the link between saturated fat and disease was deeply unpopular.