Thursday, December 14, 2006

Big Brother Takes Job as Short Order Cook

Last week New York City became the first major city to approve a ban on industrial trans-fats in restaurant food preparation. As the mayor of New York, Michael R. Bloomberg, was quoted in the New York Times, the city is ''not going to take away anybody's ability to go out and have the kind of food they want, in the quantities they want. We are just trying to make food safer."

The mayor is also quoted on MSNBC as saying “Nobody wants to take away your french fries and hamburgers — I love those things, too, but if you can make them with something that is less damaging to your health, we should do that.”

What's to argue here? It's clear industrial trans-fats, created in a process to convert liquid oil to a stable solid fat by hydrogenation, are bad for us; they lower HDL, raise LDL, and data shows they contribute to inflammation and elevated risks of coronary heart disease.

Besides the known health risks, a wide range of leading health organizations, including the American College of Cardiology, the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, the American Medical Association, the American Society of Hypertension, the Medical Society of New York and the New York Academy of Medicine all support the ban.

Heck, even my thoughts upon hearing the news of the ban was positive.

That is until I thought about it and considered the potential long-term implications of this type of ban - a ban on a legal food ingredient that no one is forced to consume. Ever.

Sorry, but the argument that consumers have no choice because restaurants are using the ingredient unbeknownst to them doesn't hold water - you'd have to be living under a rock to not know partially hydrogenated oil is the oil of choice for making french fries, pastry and baked goods in the United States; and your taste buds would need to be non-functional to not taste the margarine instead of butter on the vegetables, potatoes or bread.

Besides that, no one makes you eat out - you choose to and you have the choice to spend your money at establishments that use these partially hydrogenated fats or spend your money at establishments that don't.

One issue on my mind, in considering the long-term implications, is the fact that these fats were lobbied into our food supply on a large-scale by the very same people now insisting they be banned - yes, the same people now telling us to stop eating trans-fats once upon a time insisted they were "healthier" for us than the fats traditionally used in food preparation.

For that history, you can read Dr. Mary Enig's article, The Tragic Legacy of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, penned three years ago, that detailed how CSPI led the way, by public relations blitz, to pressure restaurants to replace the oils traditionally used with partially hydrogenated oils. All in the name of improving the quality of our food and health!

This is the same organization that, back in 1988, in their newsletter, declared that "the charges against trans fat just don't hold up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent." Today, the Executive Director of CSPI, Michael Jacobson now claims trans-fats kill 30,000 people each year. He's the same Michael Jacobson that led the way back in the eighties to, shall we say, "motivate" restaurants to replace their oils with partially hydrogenated oils.

As an Op/Ed in the Wall Street Journal asked, "We wonder if he feels guilty?"

But let's put that aside. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt (shrug) that he didn't know, couldn't have known (big eye roll) and was really of the assumption that he was doing the right thing (sigh).

The ban leaves way too many questions unanswered.

Topping the list, what will now replace the partially hydrogenated oils?

You can be damn sure no one is going to even consider going back to what worked - naturally saturated fats like coconut oil, butter, beef tallow, lard or palm oil. Who is going to risk the public outcry if they even consider these oils, let alone actually use them? We absolutely have to ignore that they undergo significantly less damage when heated, hold up extremely well in high heat applications and produce an end product that often tastes better than those made with partially hydrogenated oil. Good grief, they're saturated fats! No can do!

So, then, what's out in the pipeline of options?

Well, let's see:

zTrim is one handy-dandy fat replacement, made of "an insoluble fiber made from corn and oat."

"The ingredient and the process are the brainchild of George Inglett, longtime researcher at USDA’s Agriculture Research Service labs in Peoria, Ill. The USDA licensed the rights to this all-natural grain to Fibergel Technologies, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Z Trim Holdings, Inc."

Thank you USDA...more corn in our diets.

Food Processing magazine offers up some more "yummy" industrial options:

Rebalance System Satin 50
"a combination of thickeners, texture enhancing ingredients and Splenda sucralose for use in salad dressings, sauces and marinades. Manufacturers can reformulate the above mentioned items to achieve lower calories and/or reduced fat."

NovaLipid line of fats and oils
"Each one is specifically formulated to contain little or no trans fat. NovaLipid products have an extremely low taste profile, making them a suitable addition or alternative to a vast number of food applications such as shortenings, margarines, confections and many other prepared foods."

Neobee MLT-B
"a structured lipid based on medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). It’s a suitable replacement for partially hydrogenated vegetable soil (PHVO). Designed to mimic the solid fat index of PHVO in baking applications, the product incorporates the dietary and health benefits of MCTs, which are metabolized in one-eighth of the time and deliver fewer calories than typical long-chain fats."

Clear Valley 65
"a high oleic canola oil brings superior performance to hydrogenated shortenings, and superior fry stability and improved fry flavor."

Nexsoy Trans Fat-Free
"an expeller-pressed soybean oil. It is manufactured without the use of chemical solvents or refining caustics. It has the stability of partially hydrogenated soybean oil but is free of unhealthy trans fats. It can be used in commercial frying applications, snack foods, dressings and sauces..."

And you thought Crisco was nasty stuff?

So, which of the above options will the restaurant you eat at use?

Or will they choose something else?

Who knows?

Who cares, trans-fats are banned, anything replacing them will be "healthier," right?

There's the fatal flaw in this idea that banning trans-fats from restaurant foods is going to lead to healthier foods and healthier lives of citizens consuming those foods. It's absurd to think we can regulate and legislate away our obesity epidemic, our alarming rates of diabetes and our suseptibility to chronic, degenerative disease. None of these laws change the one thing that is required to lose weight and prevent health problems - human behavior.

Everyone in New York knows you can't make someone stop eating french fries if they're so inclined - even Mayor Bloomberg conceeds he's not taking away your french fries - they're just going to be fried in something else, again.

So really, what's the point?

This ban isn't going to make New Yorkers healthier, fitter or eat less french fries or other calorie-rich, nutrient deficient food. I'd bet that this government-enforced decline in trans fat consumption in restaurants will be matched by something as just as bad, if not worse (considering our apriori obsession with total dietary fats and condemnation of dietary saturated fat), although we'll feel good that we're not allowing any appreciable trans-fats to be served to anyone eating in a New York this time around, and we'll continue to be ever-vigilant about those dreaded saturated fats because we can be sure the watchdogs will be out in force to make sure no one uses them to replace partially hydrogenated fat in food preparation!

But those consequences pale in comparison to the very real loss of personal liberty.

Think about it - what right does the government have to summarily ban trans fats from food preparation by restaurants when they're still readily available next door at the corner market?

Ahhhh, wait a minute....maybe that should be the next stop - ban foods with these nasty fats from the shelves; the current requirement for disclosure on nutrition labels is simply not enough to protect consumers from themselves and their indulgent ways!

In fact, there are still lots policies and bans that health officials have not yet proposed - if banning one food ingredient is really such a good way to promote health, why don’t we just pull out all stops and ban beef, bacon, coffee, sugar, salt, alcohol, mayonnaise, cream, butter, and whole milk products while we're at it? That way very few people could buy these "health damaging" foods. That would surely end the obesity epidemic pretty quickly, wouldn't it?

Yeah, that's the ticket, more regulation!

While I am being a bit snarky here, I personally have no arguement about the health damaging effects of industrial trans-fats - in fact, I would love to see them eliminated fully from the food supply. What's utterly insane is a city council selectively banning their use in one segment of the economy - restaurants - while they remain freely available elsewhere, while they tell us the ban is to protect and improve our health.

Honestly, the only real basis for serious opposition to such a ban is one fundamental principle - respect and value of individual freedom to act and judge with his/her own mind.

What the ban in New York shows us, quite clearly, is that it's easy to ban something everyone agrees is "bad" for us. Nothing else is required to put an end to its consumption other than "we know it's bad for our health" - forget cognition on the part of the individual consumer, no choice or decision making on his part in these trifling matters counts for anything according to the New York City Board of Health and its experts.

The freedom to choose can simply be ignored and brushed aside because the government knows better, and knows how to protect you from yourself, and your consumption of a legally available food ingredient.

Hey look - Chicago was quite miffed New York beat them to a ban on trans-fats; they're now looking at not only banning trans-fats, but also offering up an ordinance aimed at healthy living, a requirement that would mandate prominent posting of the calories, sodium and saturated fat content of each menu item offered at chain restaurants.

Nope, not trans-fat, but saturated fat.

This, of course, to "protect the children" - as Alderman Burke said, "I don't think adults necessarily have to be controlled, they make their own lifestyle choices whether it is eating, drinking or smoking, but when it comes to kids I think every medical expert would agree that something needs to be done. If you look at the statistics now about child obesity, the early onset of child diabetes, the early onset of cardiovascular problems with children, you will find it is of epidemic proportions in America. I think parents ought to be a little bit more aware of what their kids are eating."

Like we aren't already aware?

I ownder, where will this slippery slope will bottom out?

Some will believe government is "looking out for our good," but ask yourself if you can manage this on your own.


  1. Anonymous3:57 PM

    Better off with the substitutes becoming the staples. I'll take corn or oat fiber as a functional natural fat replacement over any fat or oil any day. In fact I don't view it as a substitute, just my new way to do food going forward. Works just as well and is healthier.

    Question: I'm glad restaurants are feeling some heat. I hope it pressures them to post all ingredients with a nutritional analysis of each item in the menu. Without that info, I don't have the information I need to make choices, and I'm not free. based on the uproar, a nerve has been hit. What the heck is in this food, anyway? Sorry but, as the customer in this country, my rights trump the restaurant's.

  2. Question: I'm glad restaurants are feeling some heat. I hope it pressures them to post all ingredients with a nutritional analysis of each item in the menu. Without that info, I don't have the information I need to make choices, and I'm not free. based on the uproar, a nerve has been hit. What the heck is in this food, anyway? Sorry but, as the customer in this country, my rights trump the restaurant's.

    I agree! We simply do not need to ban trans-fats from restaurant food preparation to accomplish disclosure to customers though. Market forces work great - if consumers don't want to eat trans-fats they'll skip those foods with them and eat something else. I totally agree we should know what is in our food when we dine out - but don't think this type of regulation is where we want to head in the future...IMO this is just a first step and I have to wonder, what's next?

    This ban does not offer any real makes the politicans feel good, but what (as I asked in the post) are we going to get in place of the partially hydrogenated oil? Considering the track record of industry, I doubt it'll be a natural food and instead is going to be some concocted "functional food" invention that could have the same detrimental effects on our health long-term. I personally don't want to be a lab rat.

  3. The issue as I see it, is that these same restaurants were unwilling to tell consumers if thier products contained trans fats, number of calories etc. A couple of years back, they tried to get a menu information ordinace passed and it failed, mostly due to the lobbying of restaurant, and other associated food producers. If they had been willing to tell people what was in the food they were buying, this never would have come about.

  4. Why don't they use Olestra--now with 15% less anal leakage!

  5. I'll take corn or oat fiber as a functional natural fat replacement over any fat or oil any day

    Any fat or oil? Whats wrong with butter, coconut oil, lard, olive oil etc?

    Regina you bring up a really good point, look at our milk!

    I see what your saying, the problem isn't that this time they are regulating something bad (trans fats) but what will they next regulate?

    Maybe saturated fats will become even more taboo and regulated?
    Maybe they will start regulating the amount of fat in foods?
    Maybe theres a much unhealthier substitute that will bring in even more $$$ in store?

  6. Anonymous11:01 AM

    I've noticed that some stores here in LA have taken it upon themselves to jack up the price on whole milk compared to 2% or skim. Where's the insanity going to end?

    I couldn't agree more that market forces are the best way to self-regulate issues like this. One could make the same argument for banning smoking in public places. Isn't it up to the patron if they want to go to an establishment that allows smoking? Or isn't it up to the owner of the establishment to make it non-smoking, smoking, or have sections for both parties? It should be the same with trans or saturated fats. Require the restaurants to post ingredient's in their food and let the people make up their own stinking minds.

  7. Require the restaurants to post ingredient's in their food and let the people make up their own stinking minds.

    Of course we can't do the reasonable, logical thing....and even with this ban - there is nothing in the regulation to inform consumers what ingredients are in the foods they're being God only knows what they're going to use as replacement for the PHVO that's being banned. Restaurants don't have to disclose it, or any other ingredients, so we're exactly where we are already - we don't know if we don't ask!

  8. Anonymous3:33 PM

    You don’t need to be TOLD a hamburger topped with bacon and chili aside a mountain of fries is unhealthy. The obvious speaks for itself. And everyone knows it’s bad for you.

    Regulations and laws should exist to protect people from plummeting elevators, crashing airplanes, and tainted peanut butter. Not things you’re capable of controlling yourself. The U.S. may be hefty, but we’re not a bunch of babies.