Sunday, February 11, 2007

The dawn of trans fat sanity

My mother was a good cook who favored the fresh, simple and natural. But she and most women of her generation kept up with what was "modern," so that blue can of Crisco was always in our cupboard. When I got married, I thought that the big white blob was the only way to make a flaky pie crust. Later, when my father had to limit his diet for the health of his heart, a "good" margerine replaced the butter in the refrigerator (even though Mom still used the whipped butter). In 1984, the Center for Science in the Public Interest pushed to have restaurants move from saturated fats to (ta da!) hydrogenated fats. Now the research is piling up: No Crisco! No Jif! No McDonalds fries until they change to a healthier fat. CSPI has a new campaign for TransFree America.

Why not? Evidence shows that heart disease, diabetes, liver disfunction are likely to worsen with the trans fats. Belly fat and ovulation related fertility have been studied for connections; trans fats can show up in breast milk of mothers who can't lay off the doughnuts, muffins and chips. The insidious saturation of our supermarket shelves and restaurant kitchens with trans fats isn't hopeless: we can find our way back to real food.

A few cities have already taken the step. In Tiburon CA all restaurants made the change to safer fats in 2005. In New York City and Philadelphia, menus will have to change soon. Legislation is coming up in other cities and states as well. Some processed foods (yes, even Crisco) have already reformulated. Full labeling for trans fats has been required for a year.

Since the first can of Crisco in 1911, we have had a choice of fats that have been mechanically modified. Now there are new alternative fats, made to have high heat tolerance, to be reused and slow to turn rancid. Are they safe or are we opening another can of worms?

We are trying to make a change without asking people to make a real improvement in the way they eat. How hard can it be to simplify the way we eat, to choose real foods over fake, good tasting nutrition over worse-than-empty calories that leave obesity and physical deterioration in their wake? I welcome the intention to make progress in healthier food sources, but unless we make our kitchens the destination for good health and good taste, it won't be enough.