Hanging Out in Rockford: Rockford should go trans fat-free

I’ve been wanting to write this article for a long time now. All my friends are sick of hearing about it, so I’ll get it off my chest, and maybe that will prevent me from airing it to them all the time. Trans fats are bad for you. Pretty much everyone has heard that by now. Cities are moving to ban them. The big cookie and potato chip manufacturers have moved away from them (or so they say). But there is a lot of misinformation out there, and I would like to dispel some of it.

First, trans fats do not make anything taste better. This is a lie spread by the industries that don’t want to get rid of them. Actually, the natural fats like lard and beef tallow, which could easily replace them in all uses, taste better. No fine French chef would use Crisco; he or she would use lard. The finest pie crust in the finest restaurants in the world is made with lard. Taste is definitely not the reason trans fats are used.

What exactly are trans fats? They are vegetable fats that have been subjected to hydrogen gas at high temperatures to fill up their outer valences with protons. The reason this is done is to make the vegetable oils similar in chemical structure to beef tallow or lard. In other words, to make them exactly like animal fat. The same properties that make the vegetable oils good for you, having a lot of available electrons or hooks to grab things, thus grabbing on to the bad things that clog up your veins and arteries, make them bad from a shelf life or deep frying.

The available valences grab on to loose molecules that are floating around, say in your refrigerator, giving things that refrigerator taste. Use trans fats instead and no problem, nothing to grab on to. When it comes to deep frying, the same ability to grab on to things results in foaming. Real vegetable oil is good only for a few deep-fry batches. Trans fats go on forever. The chain restaurants don’t want to give up the trans fats for this reason, and they aren’t brave enough to go back to animal fats because of the public misconception that all things vegetable are better for you. They are putting profit before the health of the public, but why doesn’t that surprise you?

The public is slow to catch on. Back in the day, it was assumed everything vegetable was better for you, and to the extent that it is not chemically modified, this is true. The food industry pushed this idea to promote margarine as part of a diet that prevented heart attack and stroke. A lot of pressure evolved from the public’s newfound affinity for vegetable fat that forced companies like McDonald’s to change to hydrogenated vegetable oils from their traditional beef tallow. At the time, Julia Child berated them for the difference in quality. She said the fries used to be good, but now they were just so-so.

For 20 or 30 years, things went on like this, but then research started to turn up some disturbing things. Instead of having less heart attack and stroke, the people who ate margarine and other trans fats had more, a lot more. How much more is incredible. A 2 percent increase in your diet of old-fashioned saturated fat like lard brings about a 17 percent increase in heart attack and cardiovascular disease. This seems like a high number, until you compare it with trans fats where the same 2 percent increase results in an 87 percent increase in these diseases. That’s more than seven times as bad.

The real tragedy is that the largest purveyor in the country of trans fats is McDonald’s, where our kids eat every day, oblivious to these dangers. I went on the McDonald’s Web site, and a super-size fry has 8, count ’em, 8 grams of trans fat. That is in addition to a substantial amount of saturated fat. Those French fries that your little toddler loves are a time bomb waiting to go off. Eight grams of trans fat converts to 72 calories, or about 4.8 percent of a child’s 1,500-calorie diet. That is a 200 percent increase in heart attack or stroke by extrapolation (if you ate a super-sized fry every day). You could cut this number to 1/7th of that if they just went back to beef tallow.

In addition, the government is complicit, in that if there is less than a half a gram of trans fats per serving, they let you list it as zero. If your favorite fast food chain is frying in vegetable oil and saying they are trans fat-free, don’t believe them—they are only trans fat-reduced. Reduced to less than half a gram per serving so they can lie to you with impunity. Worst of all, here in Illinois, our legislators passed a law so that when your child gets a heart attack from eating this stuff, he or she cannot even sue them. How’s that for sell-out legislation?

This whole thing of something chemical being better for you than something natural is nonsense spread by the food industry. Use a little common sense. We have been eating the natural frying mediums, beef tallow and lard, for centuries. Natural selection has put in place mechanisms to deal with these products over eons of human adaptation. How could something cooked up in a lab compare? The real danger is to children, who are the biggest consumers and who will not deal with these issues. That is why cities like New York and Chicago are proposing trans fat bans. That is why we should also do it in Rockford.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Feb. 21-27, 2007, issue

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