Food for Thought
A Big Fat Headache
What’s all the hubub about trans fats?
By Samara Alpern
Not long ago, “fat” was a simple thing. Fat gave chicharrones their crackling savor. Fat was something that happened to you after you got married.
Now, fat is complicated: Saturated versus polyunsaturated versus monounsaturated. Omega 3s and Omega 6s. And, of course, the latest nutritional headache, trans fats?
Trans fats (the “trans” is italicized because it refers to a chemical configuration) have become the center of a political firestorm thanks to a recent ban enacted in New York City. So momentous was the trans fat controversy that it made the Alibi’s prestigious Top 10 Food Stories of 2006.
The issue is contentious because nutrition regulation isn’t a simple matter of public health. You’ve also got to consider food quality, economics and your inalienable right to eat whatever crap you choose.
A quick review of the unfashionable fat: Trans fats have been common in the food industry for almost 100 years because they’re so freakin’ useful. They extend product shelf life, so trans fats are found in all kinds of processed and packaged foods. And trans fats also have the magical property of turning oils from liquids into solids, making possible Crisco, margarine and all the flaky bakery products made with them. With the exception of a trace amount of trans fat that occurs naturally, the vast majority of trans fats are created by industrial processing.
While practical to the food industry, trans fats have also been found to be really bad for you. How bad? Well, worse than delicious, heart-clogging New Mexico lard, for starters. Many researchers suggest no amount of trans fats can be considered truly safe to eat. According to Forbes magazine, Harvard investigators predict ridding trans fats from the U.S. food supply could prevent between 6 and 19 percent of heart attacks and related deaths each year. Heart problems account for more disease deaths in America than anything else. Predictably, health advocates approve restrictions on trans fats.
“It is in the consumer’s interest for better health,” says Gretchen Scott, a licensed dietitian and faculty member at Santa Fe Community College.
But compensating for trans fats in food quality isn’t easy. Jean Bernstein, owner of the Satellite Coffee shops and Flying Star Cafés, cares about nutrition. She says her restaurants switched to canola oil for deep-frying years ago, and most of the foods served are trans fat-free. But even for a health-conscious restaurateur, turning out food with the same qualities without trans fats can be tough.
“Our bakery is a bit of a challenge,” admits Bernstein. “Although we mostly use butter, there are a few recipes that have about 25 percent of what we call EuroBlend, a butter-margarine blend. Our pastry chef likes the way some doughs perform with this product. [They're] crispier, easier to roll out. We have been researching some alternatives, but bakery ingredients have to perform a certain way.”
If no better alternative comes along, Bernstein says “we will simply return to all-butter in a few products. It won't be a big deal.”
And, of course, after making things work in the kitchen, you’ve also got to make them work at the cash register. Bernstein notes that like many other artificial ingredients, “trans fats are cheap--real cheap.” She says she is able to limit trans fats in most of the food served because her customers are willing to pay a little more for quality. That’s not true for every food vendor. “Unfortunately, the lower the price point, the less able an operator is to be so picky,” she says.
So why pick on trans fats all of a sudden? Sure, sure, they’re bad for you. But why single them out? Lots of foods are bad for you. Isn’t this a slippery slope? What’s next, chicharrones? Pink Hostess Snowballs? Don’t we all have the right to be fat, have heart attacks before we turn 50 and enjoy every meal along the way?
Absolutely. America is the land of plenty, and gluttony our precious birthright. But ridding the food supply of trans fats isn’t so much about banning a food as it is discouraging an unhealthy industrial process. Remember, nature doesn’t make most trans fats; companies like Nabisco do.
You can relax. Your chicharrones are safe. Restaurants might have to tinker with a few recipes, and the food industry will have to figure out another way to make a Snowball that’s been sitting on the 7-Eleven shelf for six months look edible. But some things will never change. Even without trans fats in your diet, you’re still probably going to put on a few pounds after the wedding.
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