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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Trans Fats’ Fate
News & Columns

Trans Fats’ Fate

Could it be that government sometimes knows what’s best? Eat some hydrogenated oils and find out.

By Ben Fulton
Posted // June 11,2007 -

I think it was while living in Montana as a child that my brother and I took to spreading peanut butter on our pancakes, if not margarine on our toast.

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You see, our mother refused to feed me and my brother the litany of sugar-loaded breakfast cereals we so often found sleeping over at our friends. Rather, the best way to pack calories into two growing boys ready to blast out the back door and on their way to school was to spread it on thick. Larded with partially hydrogenated oils, peanut butter did the trick, especially when mixed with pancakes and a little maple syrup. So did margarine, which during the 1970s was deemed healthier than butter. That it was often cheaper was a bonus, too. Mom cared.

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But like so many news items regarding food over the years, last year’s healthful tip is this year’s subconscious death wish. As everybody knows by now, trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, used for frying and baking for that matter, are deadly stuff. If you thought you heard plenty about trans fats last year, just wait for the rest of 2007.

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Trans fats lower your good cholesterol even as they raise the level of bad cholesterol in your body, ratcheting your risk of coronary heart disease far higher than even naturally occurring saturated fat. Imagine the dietary equivalent of industrial sludge sticking to the insides of your veins and arteries with all the tenacity and force of rabid dogs'then never letting go.

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It’s estimated that the average American consumes up to 5 pounds of the stuff. It’s also estimated, according to a recent report by the Harvard School of Public Health, that between 30,000 to 100,000 premature coronary deaths per year could be prevented were partially hydrogenated fats banned from our diets altogether. People sniff at these numbers, but 30,000 lives equals 10 terrorist attacks the likes of 9/11.

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Like cigarettes, trans fats are fast becoming the new, well, cigarettes. New York City made headlines when it became the first United States municipality to order a ban on trans fats in restaurants by July 2007. Chicago is considering a similar ban. Massachusetts may be the first state to ban the artery-clogging oils from restaurants. If you think that’s news, try the entire nation of Denmark, which has made it illegal to sell any food containing more than 2 percent trans fats. Try passing off your trans-fat laden pastries, breads or fast food in that Nordic country and you’ll face a steep fine, or perhaps even prison.

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No small amount of resistance kicks in whenever government starts telling us what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot ingest. If a man wants to eat a whole loaf of white bread slathered with partially hydrogenated shortening, smoke two packs per day, watch five hours of television per night and drive without a seatbelt then, dammit, isn’t that what we’re fighting the terrorists for! Living an unhealthy lifestyle is what freedom’s all about, is it not?

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At the same time we rely on government to keep E. coli out of our spinach, want the FDA to test our drugs before we take them, keep our kids off drugs, and hold corporations accountable for whatever toxins they spew into our environment. We want our freedom to live as we see fit. We also want the freedom to sue the pants off individuals and corporations when they cause us harm. Nothing embodies that paradox as well as the many lifetime smokers who turned around to sue tobacco companies who sold them a product they enjoyed so much.

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Truth be told, Middle East terrorists are no match for the deadly toll of the American lifestyle, which corners us into habits of sedentary living. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that obesity caused the deaths of 400,000 Americans, or 16 percent of all deaths. The leading causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer and stroke. According to the CDC, obesity is the leading cause of all three of these causes of death. Also according to research by the CDC, along with the nonprofit group RTI International, obesity costs the American taxpaying public $39 billion annually in Medicare and Medicaid programs. Perhaps we need a Department of Homeland Health more than a Department of Homeland Security.

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Don’t get the idea that diet warnings are strictly the domain of Democrats on the left. In some circles of right-wing Republicanism, the current scare is soybean-based products, which are allegedly “feminizing” those who eat them. According to these health experts, not only are soy foods causing homosexuality and leukemia in young children, the evil soy will also shrink the size of your unsuspecting John Thomas. Never mind studies as far back as the 1980s demonstrating that there is no difference in testosterone levels between heterosexual and gay men.

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Yeah, there’s an air of almost insufferable righteousness whenever someone starts nattering on about the merits of what we put in front of our face and dare call a meal. It’s bad form. It’s annoying. It’s enough to make you slap that person in the face when all you really want is to tuck into your double-cheeseburger, large order of fries, and deep-fried apple fritter which, depending on what fast-food establishment you frequent, will pump upwards of 15 grams of trans fat into your body.

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Thankfully, it looks as if the private sector has already taken a cue, and that government edicts might soon be unnecessary. KFC recently switched from hydrogenated oils to low linolenic soybean oil. Is the soy-sensitive right wing on the case? Taco Bell says it, too, will phase trans fats out of its menu. Starbucks aims to have all its stores trans-fat free which means that, at the rate at which Starbucks locations multiply, trans fats will be increasingly hard to find. Now if they could only get the stuff out of peanut butter.

 
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