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Absurdum ad Infinitum


It had been my hope that after posting “Food Police” the various law-making bodies around the country would come to their senses and quit proposing stupid food legislation. What can I say? I’m an optimist with an absurd sense of my own importance – but then, there’s that old saw about fighting fire with fire.

Alas, the state of California, which should know better than to emulate New York City, is considering several state-wide laws to prohibit trans-fats. Not all trans-fats, Dolly Madison cakes are still going to be legal, but that little bakery down the street, call it Susan’s Pie Place, that uses Crisco (in addition to real butter) to make the flakiest pie crust you’ve ever eaten will have to change to the non-trans-fat version. I’ve used that stuff in pastry and the results aren’t as delicately flakey. These days I use homemade lard if I have it.

Although cooking can be described fairly as seat-of-the-pasts chemical engineering, it isn’t just chemical engineering there’s also some mechanical engineering going on as well – particularly in baked goods. In a pie crust butter serves as a flavoring agent, but its high water content (relative to most fats and oils) plays a key role. The butter melts forming layers and the water evaporates creating the pockets of air between the layers that results in flakey pastry. Except butter melts too quickly and the layers tend to collapse. Enter the original Crisco shortening. With a higher melting point, one close to lard or suet, the pastry has a bit more time to set and the layers don’t collapse. Voila, perfect pie crust. Needless to say – and as we’ve all tasted – the different physical characteristics of non-trans-fat shortenings don’t accomplish the mechanical side of the equation as well as the trans-fat versions.

Other governmental corpulences are also anxious to pass this nearly-free, feel-good legislative processed cheese-food. The states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Maryland, and others also have trans-fat bans working their way through the legal digestive tracts.

Most of these proposed laws focus on “artificial” trans-fats – those produced by partially hydrogenating some sort of vegetable-based oil. But most of these laws also exclude packaged food. So companies like Kraft Foods, Nestlé and Interstate Bakeries (makers of Dolly Madison cakes) get a pass. However, an industrial product like Oreos is, well, industrial and, as a result, largely immune to nuance – unlike that perfect pie crust I mentioned above.

Let’s say these bans go through. Did you know that a quarter pound of beef has 1.33 grams of trans-fat in it? The cheese (if it’s real cheese) also contains trans-fats. Want milk with that cheeseburger? Yup, more trans-fat. Most animal products contain trans-fat.

The Food and Drug Administration is requiring that all foods containing more than 0.5 grams of trans-fat be labeled, but interestingly enough, that Quarter-Pounder falls mostly in the US Department of Agriculture’s bailiwick and the USDA isn’t about to do anything to tick off the folks they’re charged with protecting (no, not you, Big Ag is the USDA’s constituency).

To my way of thinking, the FDA’s move for labeling is pro-consumer because it promotes information. It’s not restricting your choices. And I don’t even have a problem with the requirement being extended to Susan’s Pie Place. Let her use Crisco, and require her to let us know if she’s doing so. That’s fair. But I want McDonald’s to tell us about the trans-fats in their ground beef too. And I really don’t want some governmental body telling Susan how to make her pie crust and depriving me of something far superior to the mass-produced dreck at my local supermarket.

There is a tendency to think of food as nothing but fuel and food production as fuel production, to treat not only corn and pork bellies, but all foods as fungible. But food isn’t simply a commodity. And it shouldn’t be. One oil isn’t necessarily the same as another and though it might strike you and I as insane to eat Fugu (the poisonous Japanese puffer fish) it has an important place in that culture. Now, trans-fats and Fugu aren’t the same but we should keep in mind, particularly when legislating food matters, that what we choose to eat has meaning and importance beyond being a source of calories and nutrients.

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