August 11

Trans fats in New York City

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Synchronicity again.
Just the day after I post on, among other things, the evils of restaurant food, the venerable New York Times publishes a piece about trans fats in New York restaurants. The New York City health department

urged all city restaurants yesterday to stop serving food containing trans fats, chemically modified ingredients that health officials say significantly increase the risk of heart disease and should not be part of any healthy diet.

The move came in an effort to “combat heart disease, the No. 1 killer in New York City,” and is being spearheaded by Dr. Thomas R. Friedan, the city’s activist health commissioner. Dr. Friedan was moved to undertake this effort when he saw the results from a survey by the health departments food inspectors who

found that from 30 to 60 percent of the city’s 20,000 restaurants use partially hydrogenated oil in food preparation.

Complying with the request, which is just that, a request, not a mandate (it is totally voluntary on the part of the restaurants), means

thousands of cooks and chefs might need to change their cooking and purchasing habits to meet the request. Trans fats are particularly prominent in baked goods, frying oils, and breading, and can be hard to replace without raising costs or changing the taste of familiar foods like cookies and French fries.

The restaurant industry, as all industries do when presented with governmental suggestions that are going to cost them money or customers, put the best face on the situation.

“Working together to reduce trans fat from our kitchens will be one more way to ensure an enjoyable and healthy experience,” said E. Charles Hunt, the executive vice president for the New York State Restaurant Association, which represents 7,000 restaurants across the state.

I’m sure Mr. Hunt’s bonhomie wasn’t marred in the least by his fingers tightly crossed behind his back. It will not be easy for restaurants, especially fast food restaurants, to get rid of trans fats without replacing them with other fats that are believed by most to be just as dangerous. Beef tallow, lard, and butter are perfectly good fats that have all the good cooking properties of trans fats, but are marred by all the negative publicity that was an outgrowth of the anti-fat frenzy. Restaurants can’t go back to these wonderfully good fats because the ill-informed anti-saturated fat brigade would be on their backs in a heartbeat.
As the article points out:

McDonald’s and a few other fast food companies have pledged to use healthier alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils but have faltered in finding a solution that is both cost effective and that does not significantly alter the taste of their foods.

The McDonald’s story is an interesting example of how misguided “experts” have gotten us into the trans fat mess we are in today. Trans fats were originally promoted as being a healthy alternative to saturated fats, but, as the article states:

Today, most scientists and nutrition experts agree that trans fat is America’s most dangerous fat and recommend the use of alternatives like olive and sunflower oils.

Remember, the experts 30 years ago were dead wrong about trans fats yet the people believed them then. Today’s experts are in many cases just as wrong, and their advice should be taken with a large grain of salt because 30 years from now they will look just as misguided.
Thirty years ago McDonalds made wonderfully delicious french fries, in fact, it was famous for them. What kind of oil were the potatoes deep fried in? Beef tallow. Beef tallow gave them their crispness and their delicious taste. But, beef tallow is about 53% saturated fat. But it also contains about 43% monounsaturated fat, which is the new darling of the fat “experts.” And of the 53% saturated fat in beef tallow, a large percentage is a saturated fat called stearic acid that has been shown in numerous studies to lower cholesterol. As the nation entered its era of saturated fat phobia a couple of decades ago, it didn’t look good for McDonalds to be serving fries deep fried in saturated fat to its customers, especially children. So, what to do?
Vegetable oils won’t work for a couple of reasons. They don’t give the fries the same degree of crispness without making them soggy, they don’t taste the same (remember, the main part of the taste of fries isn’t the potatoes, it’s the fat they absorb during deep frying), and they are too expensive because due to the less stable nature of vegetable oils, they have to be changed too often.
Enter trans fats as the savior. Trans fats act like saturated fats in terms of their cooking properties, i.e., they stand up to heat, they give a nice, crisp finish, and since they are durable they don’t have to be changed often. They don’t have the same taste as beef tallow, but, no problem, that’s why God made food flavorists. A little dash of beef tallow flavoring in the trans fat frying oil, and Voila! the old McDonald’s flavor is back.
Now McDonalds can say, hey, we’re using polyunsaturated fats to fry our fries. We’re concerned about your health. Problem is, the trans fats are much worse healthwise than even the much reviled saturated fats were alleged to be. The “experts” struck again.
I wish the city of New York well in its campaign to remove trans fats from all the 20,000 plus restaurants, but it will be an uphill battle. Until trans fats are removed in New York City and everywhere else, beware about eating in restaurants. Remember, you control the ingredients in your own kitchen.
I can’t let this article go until I give its author, Marc Santora, my idiot of the day award, which is always awarded to anyone who writes that saturated fats clog arteries. In this case Mr. Santora tried to put the words in other’s mouths, but since he didn’t put quotation marks around his sentence, he gets the credit. Here it is in all its radiant idiocy:

Public health officials contend that trans fat not only has the same heart-clogging properties as saturated fat, but also reduces the “good” cholesterol that works to clear arteries.

MORON!


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