Friday, December 20, 2013

Knowing What Is In Your Food

Published in the Sun 12-18-2013

The US Food and Drug Administration recently announced that “trans” fats are not safe to consume at any level, meaning that food manufacturers would have to remove all trans fats from their products.  This move by the FDA has prompted cries of “nanny state” and “excess government regulation,” so I have been thinking a bit about what exactly is “excess government regulation.”

If you want to sell me a scarf you knitted, and I want to buy it, we would probably all agree that transaction is our personal business and the government does not need to be involved. 

What if you want to sell me a 32 ounce sugary cola drink, and I know that drinking large quantities of sugary cola drinks will eventually predispose me to obesity and diabetes?  Should the government allow me to buy that drink even though it is harmful to my health?  I think most of us in Texas, the home of personal responsibility, would still say yes, I have a constitutional right to make stupid decisions.  If I can dodge feral hogs at 85 mph on Texas 130, surely I can handle a Big Gulp.

Let’s go a couple of steps further and suppose that I make a loaf of bread that looks pretty and smells nice, but secretly contains a deadly poison that will kill you after one bite.  Should I be allowed to sell that to you?  Of course not, you gasp.  That would be murder.  I should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  (In this case my imprisonment would be retroactive government regulation.)

Okay, those were the easy questions.  Now it gets tougher.  Remember the can of Crisco that your mom had on the back of the stove?  Crisco was short for crystallized cottonseed oil.  Cottonseed oil, a waste product from the cotton industry, was originally used to make soap and lamp oil.  A chemist discovered that if hydrogen was bubbled through cottonseed oil, it made a white, semi-solid grease that worked great for frying chicken and fish.  As a shortening, it also gave baked goods a lovely brown color and a longer shelf life.  Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (also called PHOs or trans fats) were thought to be a healthy alternative to lard and rapidly made their way into almost all of our commercially baked breads and cookies, margarines, frostings, and even coffee creamers.  These miraculous oils seemed like real business winners, until it was discovered that they were causing many thousands of heart attacks annually in the US.

Trans fats have a different chemical structure than natural vegetable oils.  Unfortunately, our bodies use oils from our diet to make things like cell membranes, so if we ingest abnormal oils, we can expect abnormal results over the long term.  Just like one cigarette won’t kill you, one trans fat loaded cinnamon roll won’t knock you off right away.  But over the long term, even a tiny increase in the amount of trans fat in the diet increases the risk of heart disease by as much as 30%.

Since 2006 the FDA has required food makers to list trans fat as a separate ingredient on nutrition labels.  Public shame turned out to be quite an effective form of government regulation, because food companies fell all over themselves to remove the trans fat from their products, rather than admit that they were using PHOs.  These days, most of the foods in the grocery store that still admit to containing a lot of trans fats are margarines, frostings and baked goods that have frostings, like cinnamon rolls.  Unfortunately the labeling law has a loophole.  If a product contains less than half a gram per serving it could still be labeled as 0 grams of trans fat, so if you eat processed food every day you can still get enough to harden your arteries.  At the grocery store you can read the fine print to find which products contain PHOs, but restaurants are more difficult, unless you carry a biochemistry lab around in your purse.  I can’t know which foods have trans fat in them, and often the restaurant people don’t know themselves, so I can’t really make an informed decision about what is safe to eat.  A bit of government regulation over my food doesn’t bother me in the least.  We actually have these government regulations because people used to get poisoned by their food regularly, and not in a gradual way.

Of course, many restaurant owners want to keep trans fat out of their food just because it is the right thing to do.  I eat lunch every Friday with a group of friends at Bob’s Catfish-N-More in San Gabriel Park.  Bob McMinn, a former paramedic, was “green as a snake” about nutrition when he first got into the restaurant business in 1979.  When he opened Catfish-N-More he bought 50 pound blocks of hydrogenated soy oil to fry his catfish.  It was what everybody did.  When he learned about the health dangers of trans fat 20 years ago, he switched over to canola oil.  It’s more expensive but it lasts longer, and lets him feel better about his customers eating fried food.  He laughs and admits, “This ain’t no therapeutic diet kitchen!”  He doesn’t serve dessert because he figures that fried food is indulgence enough for his customers.  You can however get a big sugary cola if you think you can handle it.

Bob McMinn at Catfish-N-More

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