When I traveled to Winnipeg last Christmas, I picked up the January 2007 issue of Discover Magazine, which is the annual stories of the year issue. At number 14, a medical story. In the February issue, Killer Fat. Both stories deal with the health effects of transfats – more precisely trans-fatty acids – and their ubiquity in snack foods manufactured with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
The Killer Fat article was the first article that I have read that explained the metabolic role of fat. It makes sense that over a few million years of mammalian evolution, body forms that extract and store the maximum energy from available food have tended to prevail. The references to the Wake Forest study where they fed monkeys unsaturated fats and transfats was up to the minute and just scary. I have since seen some references in running and/or cycling magazines to the fact that top athletes have, and need, enough visceral fat to provide energy for sustained performance.
Armed with this knowledge, I have been checking product labels, and avoiding anything with transfats.I was under the impression that transfatty acids were largely artificial, and disappointed to find that all cheeses seemed to have transfat. I had expected cheese to show some saturated fact, but I thought that cheese, in moderation, was a reasonable food choice. It adds protein and calcium, and is better choice for sandwiches and cooking than processed meats and red meat.
The transfats in raw beef, milk and milk products are natural. The US Dairy industry claims that the transfats in milk and cheese are not the same as the transfats created in the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil. The US FDA distinguishes non-conjugated synthetic transfats from naturally occurring fatty acids with conjugated trans double bonds, such as conjugated linoleic acid in its food packaging regulations.
Walter Willett, a physician specializing in nutritional epidemiology has been a critic of the USDA Food Pyramid. Discover interviewed him in March 2003. He wrote an article for Scientific American Reports’s March 2007 issue on Eating to Live called Rebuilding the Food Pyramid. One of his criticisms of the food pyramid is that promotes the mantra that carbs are good, fat is bad. He thinks carbs in quantity are not good. They turn to sugar, and unused sugar goes to fat. He also points to studies showing that fat from fish and olive oil is beneficial on lowering “bad cholesterol” and suggests that vegetable oils are acceptable except for partially hydrogenated oils. I have the print issue. He says that the item to be avoided is “trans-unsaturated fatty acid”. He says that unsaturated (vegetable oil) fats are to be preferred to saturated fats – lard and animal fat. Oddly, fish oils, which are saturated, are not as bad. He hasn’t expressed an opinion on the differences between natural transfat and synthetic acids.
Food policy is a battleground for moralists, as well as scientists and economic interests. Morality is often driven by personal feelings, and people are disgusted by other people’s food choices. Grease and fat really offend some people, which has probably driven and skewed the medical and nutritional research, and the presentation of information to the public.
We can’t let the food industry – and I would include the organic and alternative industry along with the rest of the marketers – tell us what is safe. They are interested in selling us any damn thing that makes a buck. On other side, the majority of food experts are interested or self-serving players with their own interests, theories and systems – or just god-damned busybodies. As long as our health seems to be good and we are happy with our lives, we tend to ignore the whole subject and eat what appears right by common sense, availability and appetite. People have to be experts on their own health, and we have to be critical about the information we are fed.
I think seafood, olive oil, wine and cheese are on the menu. In moderation.