Rebuttal to Rod Jackson – Are New Zealanders the world’s leading butter eaters?

Yesterday this headline appeared in Stuff.

Included in the article was a claim from Prof Rod Jackson that

“Butter consumption has increased and the underlying cause of heart disease is a diet high in saturated fat.”

Kiwis follow advice of advocates for high-fat, low-carb diets, who promote foods such as coconut oil and butter, to the detriment of their health, Jackson said.

“Everything was going in the right direction and now people are getting confused. Coconut fat should never go in your mouth, it’s saturated fat.”

We think this is a bit rich. A rise in heart disease was a predictable result of the huge increase in diabetes and obesity in recent years, the very epidemic we’ve been fighting with LCHF advice. The same reversal of mortality trends has happened in America, where LCHF is hardly being blamed. One place it’s not happening is Sweden, which has had mainstream LCHF diet advice and rising butter sales since 2008 – in Sweden heart attack death rates continue to drop steadily, with age-adjusted stats available as recently as 2015.
(In fact the Stuff article states that heart disease rates have already risen in Australia, a country which, as we shall see, is, according to Rod, eating far less butter than us, and where the dietary establishment has been suppressing LCHF advice viciously).

Another good reason why heart disease is rising is that we have an ageing population. The figures in Stuff were not age adjusted, there is a limit to how long life can be extended, and that limit is being reached all around the developed world. People have to die of something; we won’t really know if heart disease is rising until the statistics are age-adjusted – but we suspect it is, because this is an expected effect of a diabesity epidemic that Rod didn’t seem to think was very important with regard to heart disease when we spoke to him last.

How LCHF eating advice  – a pattern of eating which reduces almost every cardiovascular risk factor – blood pressure, weight, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, blood glucose and more – can be blamed for any increases in heart disease mortality is a wonder.

What about Rod’s claim that we’re eating more butter? He expanded on this in a recent edition of the Listener which re-opened the old debate, which is better, butter or margarine (non-dairy spreads)?

The case against butter was presented by Rod and Listener nutrition writer Jennifer Bowden, and the case for margarine was presented by oils and fats chemist Dr Laurence Eyres, so it was a balanced debate.

We don’t agree with their view that butter is bad for you, and causing untold health harms in New Zealand.

Before we go into it, we’re not telling people to eat butter. Olive oil is perfectly good and also has lots of uses. We just don’t see why the average person shouldn’t eat butter, especially in the context of a low carb diet. But we will point out that the category of margarine/non-dairy spread products suffers from multiple issues not addressed in the Listener article, which we’ll get to in a second part of this series.

So are we eating too much butter? First, we need to understand – just how much butter do we eat?


Enter a caption

from Index Mundi – the 1986 spike is probably the result of an error that was corrected in 1996.

Professor Rod Jackson, interviewed by Nicky Pelligrino, told us the old historical narrative, that heart disease in NZ started falling as soon as butter intake started dropping from the 1960’s high of 20 Kg annually per capita (385g per week, on average, for every man, woman and child in the country), because saturated fat intakes fell, cholesterol fell, and so on.

The problem with this story is that saturated fat intakes fell slowly, there was a decline in monounsaturated fat too, and most of the replacement energy came from carbohydrates and products with trans fats (margarine became freely available in New Zealand in 1972). Any rise in polyunsaturated fat consumption was small and happened slowly, taking us from about 3% to 5% PUFA by the 1980’s.

There’s no version of the diet-heart hypothesis where a very gradual change of this type would cause a dramatic drop in heart attacks, effective immediately (or even at all, really). We were still eating diets high in saturated fat when heart disease started dropping, and we had been eating them for quite some time, and, per the classic version of the diet-heart hypothesis, coronary atherosclerosis is a slowly progressive disease and its reversal, if it happens at all, requires drastic dietary change.

In Rod Jackson’s version we started replacing butter with olive oil and canola in the late 60’s. No, we didn’t. Oils available in NZ in those days weren’t popular and usually tasted rancid, maybe because they got left in the cupboard for years. People didn’t really start using those products till the 1970’s, which was when the health food movement hit New Zealand. Canola oil wasn’t even invented till the mid-1990’s.

Be that as it may, the most remarkable claim in Rod Jackson’s story is that we are now eating as much butter as we did in the 1960’s. He’s on record from 2014 as saying that NZ per capita butter consumption was up to 11 Kg per annum in 2011, and now he’s saying it’s over 20 Kg and the highest in the world.

That’s right – every man woman and child in New Zealand eats, on average, 400g of butter every week (a block is 500g).

Judge Judy Scheindlin has a book titled “Don’t Pee on my Leg and Tell me it’s Raining”.
This is a case where a little observation on Rod’s part might help to correct a mistaken view. Is it really raining butter?

In the 1997 nutrition survey adult Kiwis (15+) were eating about 7.1% of the 35% of energy that came from dietary fat from butter (about 2.5% of total energy); children ate much less. In the 2008/9 survey, this was halved.[1] Calculating from these figures, unlikely to be very reliable, only gives us around 2Kg a year. Yet even in this year Rod Jackson was quoted as saying “We average around 8kg a year – three times as much as Australians and 16 times more than the Japanese”. So according to Jackson, in 2008, before LCHF and Paleo became popular, the results of the Ministry of Health’s Food and Nutrition Study were completely and utterly wrong, and the average Kiwi was already eating more butter than a butter-friendly low-carber does today, and as much as the average inhabitant of France.

Rod’s data come from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, but there are other data available, which come from the dairy industry itself, and the International Dairy Federation has our per capita butter consumption for 2015 at 4.9 Kg, placing us in 7th equal place in world butter consumption.

They should know. But also look around you. My (GH) family of four eats and my (GS) family of five eat butter, and we don’t buy any non-dairy spreads. The two adults, but not the teenagers, eat LCHF (both GS and GH). We buy one 500g block most weeks (some weeks we don’t need to replace it). We use a little ghee too (GH). Together this adds up to about 550g butter fat; that’s 7.2 Kg per year per capita. But we’re exceptional families (maybe?), because someone is still buying the margarine and non-dairy spreads, someone is still cooking with soy and corn oil, and someone is still using vegetable shortening in their baking. Canola oil consumption in NZ is almost double that of butter, according to the industry data. These things haven’t gone away – and most of them didn’t exist in the 1960’s, when butter was the main fat in recipe books, and the only spread in the shops. We sometimes see butter in other people’s shopping trolleys, but more often see the cheaper oils and spreads. New Zealanders don’t eat more fat today than we did in the 60’s, so how do we fit all these oils and spreads in if we’re now eating the same amount of butter we ate back then?


New Zealand’s Canola consumption is almost double that of butter in these industry graphs.

Another factor is that Kiwis eat out more often and eat more processed and fast food than we did in the 1960’s. Takeaway food and processed food are hardly ever made with butter, and even restaurant food doesn’t supply much. The 1960’s equivalent of processed food was Edmonds’ Cookbook recipes made with equal quantities of butter, sugar and flour, or white bread with butter and jam, cheese, or luncheon meat (and if there were any adverse health effects of butter in the 1960’s NZ diet, you don’t need to look any further than those combinations, which accounted for most of the butter eaten).
So it looks to us that the IDF estimate of around 5 Kg per annum has to be much closer to the truth than the FAO estimate of 20 Kg, even if, as we expect, butter consumption per capita is increasing.

Why does this matter?

It’s important that public health advice be based on statistics that are as accurate as possible. Rod Jackson is fairly representative of the anti-saturated fat approach in New Zealand public health. In 2008 he called for a tax on butter (“professor calls for tax on poison butter“).

His colleagues present proposals modelling the effects of saturated fat taxes in New Zealand. If Jackson and his colleagues are basing their thinking on the FAO estimate, and it is badly wrong, as we think it may well be, then these models, such as they are, will be inaccurate. Further, if a scare story is published claiming we eat too much butter, and this is why we’re having heart attacks (sure, it has nothing to do with low-fat sugary treats and KFC cooked in canola oil), and the estimate of how much butter is being eaten in that story is out by a factor of 3 or 4, then the claim is based on an alternative fact.

Plainly, we need much more reliable data than we currently have to make any claims about butter consumption in NZ today.

As for the claim that coconut oil is somehow responsible – coconut oil is expensive. It’s not a big seller in supermarkets. It’s being bought by health conscious people and used as part of a diet that’s overall lowering their risk. It’s very unlikely to have come anywhere near the rise in heart attacks; we note that both the Stuff article and a recent Listener article focus on the stories of younger people who had heart attacks with no warning, because their cholesterol was low. So that hardly tells us that butter or coconut oil are dangerous – it tells us, rather, that Rod Jackson’s preferred risk marker is dangerously unreliable.

To make public health recommendations about a food like coconut oil is a step way past any criterion that should be used by public health practitioners. More specifically the criteria set out by Bradford Hill are simply not met. Its time to get sensible about public health recommendations around saturated fat and coconut oil.

For metabolic syndrome, maybe it’s time to look at other results, like the fasting TG/HDL ratio and HbA1c, and to start taking the epidemic of diabetes, obesity, and the metabolic syndrome more seriously, seriously enough to start applying effective measures like LCHF more widely.

Addendum: some more realistic data on the butter increase

Here’s some figures that seem to fit the facts. They come from the US Department of Agriculture’s yearly reports and are based on industry monitoring.

– From 2009 -2011, NZ butter consumption was at its lowest ever – 20 thousand metric tonnes. In 2012, about the time we (GS and GH) started to eat LCHF, Pete Evans went Paleo, and so on, it went up 5%, and went up another 4.7% in 2013. Consumption has stayed stable since then, on 22 thousand metric tonnes.
So a 10% increase over the lowest-ever consumption rate can possibly be attributed to LCHF, Paleo, and the Real Food movement, etc (and to New Zealand’s ever-growing population).

However, in 2013, rapeseed oil (canola) increased 5.71% and in the following year 2.70%

Palm oil consumption also increased by 36% in this period, and is now equal to butter consumption.

Soybean oil, the other main oil in spreads and other processed foods, fluctuated a fair bit but overall stayed stable during this period.

Canola and palm oil together – oils and spreads – accounted for a bigger increase in saturated fat intake in NZ than butter during the period in question, proving that Kiwis in general didn’t turn away from these foods at all.

In part 2 of this series we’ll look at What, if Anything, is Wrong with Margarine?


[1] Jody C. Miller, Claire Smith, Sheila M. Williams, Jim I. Mann, Rachel C. Brown, Winsome R. Parnell, C. Murray Skeaff. Trends in serum total cholesterol and dietary fat intakes in New Zealand between 1989 and 2009. Aust NZ J Public Health. 2016; Online; doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12504.

25 Comments on “Rebuttal to Rod Jackson – Are New Zealanders the world’s leading butter eaters?

  1. The fact that Pacific peoples put coconut fats into their mouths for thousands of years before Europeans turned up, and explored, colonised and thrived across the largest ocean in the world in the process, tells me all I need to know about the fallacy of Drury’s argument!

  2. Excellent!!!’ Thank you for this.

    Apologies for brevity and typos as sent while out and about!


  3. Thank God for your articulate and scientific response. I am so thankful that you converted some years ago.

  4. If anyone wants to crack some statistics, here is the Health New Zealand site that supplies the FAO with data,
    This refers to availability data, rather than consumption

    And this is the US Department of Agriculture data, which includes figures on domestic butter consumption (p8), which agrees with the International Dairy Federation figure (divide 22 thousand metric tonnes by the population of New Zealand)

    Click to access Dairy%20and%20Products%20Annual_Wellington_New%20Zealand_10-8-2015.pdf

    Here is the 2008/9 Food and Nutrition Survey.

    Click to access a-focus-on-nutrition-v2.pdf

    I’ll quote this:

    It is important to review the foods included in
    each group rather than simply focusing on the food group descriptor, which was created
    for the 1997 National Nutrition Survey. The order of foods listed as examples does not
    necessarily reflect current consumption patterns. For example, the Butter and
    margarine group includes more margarine than butter.

    Use of spread was similar among males and females in most age groups, except that
    males aged 51–70 years were less likely to use reduced-fat margarine (26.0%) than
    females of the same age group (37.6%). Use of spread was similar across age groups,
    except for a higher use of plant sterol margarine by those aged 51–70 years compared
    to younger age groups.
    Males living in the most deprived neighbourhoods were less likely to use light or
    reduced-fat margarine (NZDep2006 quintile 5: 18.9%) than males living in the least
    deprived neighbourhoods (quintile 1: 38.0%) and more likely to use full-fat margarine
    (quintile 5: 47.5%; quintile 1: 27.7%).
    Females living in the most deprived neighbourhoods (quintile 5) were less likely to use
    butter (14.2%) than females living in the least deprived neighbourhoods (quintile 1:
    31.5%), and more likely to use any type of margarine (full-fat or reduced-fat) (quintile 5:
    76.0%; quintile 1: 58.6%). Females living in the most deprived neighbourhoods (quintile
    5) were more likely to use full-fat margarine (49.0 %) than females living in the least
    deprived neighbourhoods (quintile 1: 18.3 %). Overall, there was an increase in those
    choosing any type of margarine across increasing neighbourhood deprivation, after
    adjusting for age, sex and ethnic group.

    With descending socioeconomic status, heart attack risk rises, and the choice of cooking fat/oil or spread becomes more likely to be determined by socioeconomic factors, and less likely to be influenced by the views of celebrity chefs or LCHF advocates.
    Budget brand spread is much cheaper than butter, canola and soy oil are much cheaper than butter, olive oil, or coconut oil. (Homebrand Spread Margarine 500g. $1.50 each, Signature Range Butter Salted 500g $5.29 – Sunfield Canola Oil 500ml $ 2.49 – Countdown online).

  5. So maybe, just maybe, the measurement error in the USDA data between 1986-1996 was also in FAO data, but wasn’t corrected there?

  6. This Prof Jackson teaches evidence based medicine. Hahaha – perhaps he should take his own course?

  7. I love how the lead case mentioned in the article (Scott Anderson) “was not told to change his diet as his condition was hereditary.” So in his case the whole diet/heart health hypothesis does not apply anyway. They build a whole story focussed on someone with hereditary condition.

  8. Here’s some data that seems to fit the facts – from 2009 -2011, NZ butter consumption was at its lowest ever – 20 thousand metric tonnes. In 2012, about the time Grant started LCHF, Pete Evans went Paleo, and so on, it went up 5%, and went up another 4.7% in 2013. Consumption has stayed stable since then, on 22 thousand metric tonnes.
    So a 10% increase over the lowest-ever consumption rate can possibly be attributed to LCHF, Paleo, and the Real Food movement, etc (and to New Zealand’s ever-growing population).

    However, in 2013, rapeseed oil (canola) increased 5.71% and in the following year 2.70%

    Palm oil consumption also increased by 36% in this period.

    Canola and palm oil together – oils and spreads – accounting for a bigger increase in saturated fat intake in NZ than butter during the period in question, and proving that kiwis in general didn’t turn away from these foods.

  9. This professor Jackson is nothing but a shill in the payroll of Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Agriculture and Big Med.

    • I really don’t think that’s true. I’m pretty sure that Rod means well and has been mesmerised by the fat-cholesterol theory and its consequences.

    • Yes, with regard to heart disease, that’s almost certainly the major factor (apart from the trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils). And it’s hard to see how eating “healthy fats” with flour and sugar can work out any better than eating butter or marge, even if it did cause less heart disease.
      However, with regard to some other diseases and causes of death the type of fat might make a difference, and we’ll be looking at this in the next post.

    • A REMINDER I was a type 2 diabetic, non diabetic for 3 years using LCHF. Using homemade dripping & 1 butter last for weeks. Where I would buy 3 marg for a week , cause bread is also cheap & consider healthy.

      • Thanks for posting your story Joseph (it should inspire others, if anyone reading this far needs some motivation); the socioeconomic aspect of this debate is too easily forgotten.
        This article just appeared in NZ Doctor
        Worse data on eating habits, obesity

        A worsening picture is emerging from the diet and obesity data in the Annual Update of Key Results 2015/16: New Zealand Health Survey, and it is skewed unfavourably towards people in the most socioeconomically deprived areas, Dr Ferguson says.

        Fewer adults are eating recommended servings of fruit and vegetables, and those in the most deprived areas are way behind the best-off citizens. Meanwhile, children in deprived areas are the biggest drinkers of fizzy drinks.

        The update says obesity now affects 32 per cent of adults, and has increased as socioeconomic deprivation has increased.

        Adults in the least deprived neighbourhoods have four times the rate of extreme obesity as their peers in well-off areas; 20 per cent of children living in the most deprived areas are obese, compared with 4 per cent in the least deprived.

        Dr Ferguson says poorer families have trouble affording the fresh foods now embraced by many in wealthier groups, but lack of understanding is also involved. This suggests a failure of educators, public health and primary care, Dr Ferguson says.–exercise-as-best-preventive-medicine.aspx

        Of course neither butter or margarine can really make a bad diet much better, but if the poor are eating marge and getting much sicker than the rich eating butter, why is Rod so sure that butter is worse? The Harvard research, which the Listener seems seduced by, is a big study of health professionals (and marge itself is never measured), with very low death rates, so how can it tell us anything about the role of diet in diseases in poor or uneducated people?

  10. Hahahaha I already predicted this would be the excuse, only I hadn’t considered New Zealand as being the epicentre of the stupidity. He might also have blamed the number of people dropping their statins as a result of you “cranks on the internet” as a double whammy,

    Frankly I think you SHOULD eat less butter, then you can send more to me! Here in the UK I switch between Anchor, Kerrygold (Ireland) and President (France). For a while there was a high quality and surprisingly cheap butter from the West of England, but it was taken off the supermarket shelf in favour of a new margarine whose USP was that it “contained butter”. You just couldn’t make this up.

    Will be interesting to watch how things progress in Sweden, and whether the LCHFers in the US have any effect on national statistics.

  11. Thank goodness you eat butter! Just finished reading Sally Fallon Morell’s Nourishing Fats book which along with lots of research is highly illuminating and of course common sense. Added lard and lots of bacon to my diet, and losing weight and getting back in control of my blood sugar levels, amongst other things by eating a moderate protein, high fat diet with 20g of carbohydrate (low GI veg). I find it interesting that the only true source of Vitamin A is in animal fat, when the USDA website on the american diet called animal fats empty with no value! fiona, cornwall

    • Yes! And by comparison how many micronutrients are NOT to be found in the recommended “heart healthy” O6 oils. Or in the carbs. There may be another elephant in the room here. I tried to ask a dietician which of my nutrient-filled foods I should stop eating in order to fit in my recommended 300g carbs per day, but answer came there none. Even when they add, well, additives to the marge, I’d sooner trust a cow to put the right stuff in its “secretions” as a vegan described dairy products.

      • Butter will increase your intake of vitamin A, D3, and K2, and may supply trace amounts of selenium or iodine (but eggs are the better source). Vegetable fats, on the other hand (except coconut) are usually good sources of vitamin E and K1 (but nuts and green veges are the better sources). So depending on the likely deficiencies in the rest of the diet, they can both have a place. But then of course there are many vegetable oils to choose from, there is only one butter!

    • Thanks J. Canola did not, as far as we know, appear on New Zealand shelves until the 1990s, and our research indicates that it was approved as GRAS by the FDA in 1985. No doubt it was “invented” at an even earlier date, but the research and development of a novel food required to bring it to market takes time; its appearance in the food supply here can be dated from the sources we have provided, but the confusion with rapeseed oil may make exact dating difficult. In any case our argument here is not about the healthfulness or otherwise of canola oil but the types and amounts of fats and oils consumed in New Zealand, and if you have an insight into this data we would be interested.

    • I looked a bit further into dating canola oil – the canola council’s website says
      “North American farmers have been growing canola seed for over 30 years.”
      “Clinical studies involving thousands of healthy volunteers have been conducted over the past 20 years.”
      Together this gives a timeline whereby canola oil for human consumption is relatively new.

      Wikipedia says “Canola was bred from rapeseed cultivars of B. napus and B. rapa at the University of Manitoba, Canada, by Keith Downey and Baldur R. Stefansson in the early 1970s,[3][4] having then a different nutritional profile than present-day oil in addition to much less erucic acid.”
      So even in the 70s we did not have the modern oil and this was still a test stage of development.

  12. Was Rod Jackson right about the increase in heart disease in 2017?

    Provisional data for 2017 was only published in 2019. And even them some deaths were still unprocessed.

    In 2018 Rod was claiming CVD rates were dropping, but was expecting the drop to slow because of rising diabetes rates (not because of butter). However, even in 2018, he only had data up to 2015.

    I don’t see how he could POSSIBLY have known what he claimed, and no evidence published since supports his 2017 statements.

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