Now serving no trans fat!

The food industry and the USDA's ballyhooed war on trans fat distracts Americans from their real problem: They eat too much of the wrong food.

Published March 7, 2005 10:40PM (EST)

In the past few months, I've gotten sucked into the newest food fear: trans fat. The artery-hardening enemy du jour is a fat that's now thought to be so incontrovertibly bad for you that even the notoriously laissez-faire Bush administration recently advised citizens to consume as little of the stuff as possible.

I've heeded the call by dutifully scrutinizing the ingredients list on every granola bar, box of crackers and jar of peanut butter in the kitchen cupboard for traces of this new public enemy No. 1 in the fat-ass American diet. And now that the cupboard's purged of foods that include "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" or shortening, it looks a lot barer than it did a few months ago.

Which is why I am now in crispy bliss, eating a big plate of fried squid in Tiburon. The waterfront hamlet across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County is the kind of community where folks longing to buy a new $10 million estate "will find everything they need," as one local real estate agency claims. I journeyed to Tiburon because it has proclaimed itself the first "trans fat free city" in America. While most restaurants have been slow to take trans fat off the menu, all 18 restaurants in this tony town have voluntarily agreed not to use fat made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil when they deep-fry or bake, making their town just a little bit more health-conscious than pretty much everyone else's.

It's a message that's served up right in the front window of Servino Restaurant on Main Street. A green heart-shaped sign says: "We use trans fat FREE cooking oil. Ask us for a leaflet."

After I help my husband Jim polish off the 30-piece appetizer of fried Monterey calamari, I lay into a 12-inch pepperoni pizza, which supposedly serves one. Jim has four veal medallions glistening with prosciutto and fontina. For dessert we split an order of profiteroles -- two baseball-size pastries stuffed with vanilla ice cream and doused in dark Godiva chocolate. Yum. And it's trans fat free!

Earlier in the day, Jim had run 10 miles. But I had done nothing more strenuous than walk to and from the car. So by the time the check comes I'm already vowing silently to never ... eat ... again.

That's the paradox of the great trans fat purge that leaves nutritionists and public-health advocates frustrated at the "zero grams trans fat"-hype now sweeping a grocery aisle near you. Sure, trans fat should go. Who doesn't think that?

But nutritionists fear that focusing on one ingredient creates the illusion that purging it will make up for our other crimes against the waistline. Health advocates say the war on trans fat has become little more than a marketing opportunity for the major food companies to continue serving junk food with a healthy conscience. Meanwhile, with its new guidelines about avoiding trans fat, the USDA can appear to be doing the healthy thing without really causing the food companies to change their fatty ways.

"PepsiCo had full-page ads in major national newspapers saying that Doritos and Fritos are now trans fat free -- 0 grams trans fat," says Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. "So they took the trans fat out. Now they're a health food? Give me a break. It's a calorie distractor."

So much for my health-conscious dinner of fried squid, pepperoni pizza, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.

The race is on to take the manmade trans fat out of pretty much everything we've put it into. The ingredient occurs naturally in dairy and meat products that come from ruminants, like cows. So, unless you go vegan, there's no way to avoid it entirely. But most nutritionists (and the Department of Health and Human Services) aren't as worried about the naturally occurring kind. It's the trans fat that's made from pumping hydrogen into vegetable oil that even the Bush Agriculture Department says everyone should avoid. The kind that McDonald's pumps into its fries.

Today, most Americans get about 2.6 percent of their total calories per day from trans fat, according to the FDA. The new 2005 federal dietary guidelines advise Americans to "keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible." That's vague. But at a press conference announcing the new dietary regime in January, then Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson said 2 grams per day is probably the "upper limit" that an adult should aim for in their diet. Even a small order of McDonald's French fries has more than that.

Trans fat still lurks in all kinds of tasty goodies from packaged crackers, cookies and pastries to movie-theater popcorn in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Processed-food companies are scrambling to get it out of their products before Jan. 1, 2006, when they'll have to list the number of grams of trans fat on their labels, just like saturated fats. The lengths and expense that they're going to achieve this -- and keep the taste and consistency that customers are used to in products like packaged cookies and donuts -- have been chronicled on the front page of the New York Times.

McDonald's is taking the trans fat issue on its triple chin: The fast food giant will pay $8.5 million to settle two lawsuits that argued that the Golden Arches misled the public about the amount of the fat in its foods. McDonald's announced it would remove the artery-clogging fat from its menu back in 2002 but then failed to do so. Apparently, it's not that easy to make McDonald's signature item -- the French fry -- without trans fat. The lawyer involved in the suits also organized the campaign to make the restaurants in his town -- Tiburon -- trans fat free. He famously sued Kraft about all the trans fat in Oreo cookies, a few years back, before withdrawing the suit, saying he'd made his point.

And as the jihad against trans fat spreads, health magazines are even creating shopping lists of treats that don't have dreaded stuff. So the great trans fat purge has turned into a marketing bonanza, because even some of the junkiest junk foods can boast that they don't have trans fat. In September 2004, Tostitos started sporting "0 grams of Trans Fat" on the front of the packaging, with Frito-Lay promising chips like Lay's, Ruffles, Doritos, Fritos and Cheetos would soon do the same.

That's one reason nutritionists and public-health advocates think that focusing too much on the worst fat in the American diet clouds the larger issue: getting people to eat less junk and more nutritious foods like vegetables and fruits. Simply removing trans fat from food products hardly makes them healthy. In many cases, they are still loaded with sugar, preservatives and calories. Just because Fritos or Doritos chips don't have trans fat doesn't mean a dietician will recommend shoveling them down with abandon.

"It's a joke to me," says Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices in Oakland, Calif. "As if taking the trans fat out of something makes it healthy. This is a typical food industry strategy. They turn it into a marketing gimmick. This is the problem with the focus on a single ingredient. The industry will just find some substitute."

One key issue is: What will replace trans fat? To keep the texture, taste and mouth-feel that consumers are used to in their cookies and snacks, some companies may just take out the trans fat and pack on the saturated fat. "We actually might be taking a step backward if food companies are taking out trans fat and substituting in twice as much or more saturated fat," says Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition at Penn State University, who served on the federal dietary guidelines advisory committee. "We've really done a lot in recent years getting people to decrease saturated fat, and I'd really hate to see the pendulum swing back there and have saturated fat increase."

But it's hard to see how that won't happen. "For companies to find some kind of reasonable substitute, it's either going to cost them, or they're going to have to put in more saturated fat," says Nestle from New York University.

One reason trans fat oil has been so attractive to companies has nothing to do with taste, consistency or the shelf-life it gives products. It's very cheap. Soybeans, which trans fat is often derived from, are a heavily government-subsidized commodity. In the '90s, the domestic soybean industry waged war on Malaysian palm oil, a major source of saturated fat. "They organized this huge campaign," Nestle says. "Everybody took the palm oil out of their foods." She thinks it would be "very ironic" if the campaign against trans fat brings it back.

I'd already done as much myself in the microcosm of my cupboard. When I stopped buying crackers that have trans fat, I stocked up on wheat crackers. It never occurred to me to check the saturated fat from the palm oil in those crackers, although I did note that they had a lot of calories.

R. Elaine Turner, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Florida, sees the current interest in trans fat as part of a long cycle of getting food manufacturers to reformulate foods that doesn't necessarily improve anyone's overall health. When fat was the enemy 10 or 15 years ago, companies made low-fat and fat-free products. When carbs were bad, they took out sugars and carbohydrates. Now, trans fat has to go.

"We keep in this cycle rather than just cutting down on things that provide us with a lot of calories and fat and not very many nutrients," Turner says. "Instead of eating less of those, we encourage manufacturers to reformulate those to seem more attractive, at least initially. 'Oh, it's fat free, it must be good for me.' Not necessarily. 'Oh, it's trans free, it must be good for me.' Not necessarily."

It wasn't long ago that dietitians used to recommend trans fat as a substitute for saturated fat. "We made a terrible mistake with trans fat," says Kris-Etherton. "We thought they were good. We thought it was a good replacement for saturated fat. And it turned out to be a bad thing to do." All the more reason that Americans need more specific guidance about what to do about it now.

And the vague new federal guideline "to keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible" isn't helping. Kris-Etherton's committee recommended that Americans be advised to limit their daily trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of overall calories. "You can see I'm frosted about this," she says. "One percent would be success. It would make an impact. For a lot of people, they'd be decreasing intake by twofold, and with a lot of other people it would be even more."

Nor are the new food-labeling laws models of clarity. They allow some amount of trans fat in foods that say "zero" on the label. Take the Quaker Oats Chewy Granola Bar, a snack food marketed to parents as a healthier alternative to potato chips, cookies, pretzels, donuts and even loose trail mix. Personally, I used to eat it every day until I saw the dreaded "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredient list, and it had to go.

In the past year, the granola has been reformulated, reducing the amount of trans fat from 1 to 1.5 grams per serving -- depending on the flavor -- to less than half a gram per serving. Food and Drug Administration guidelines say that if there is less than half a gram, the packaging can read zero trans fat.

However, nutritionists are not really worried about lesser levels of trans fat. "It's a bizarre labeling quirk," Nestle says. "If you don't eat too much of it, it doesn't matter much. It's not a poison." I guess I can put the Quaker Oats Chewy Granola bars back in my cupboard.

More troubling to Nestle is the twisted way that the fight against trans fat gives food companies something to do in the obesity epidemic that won't interfere with their bottom line, while the American waistline only grows bigger. She maintains that in a business that depends on cheap government-subsidized staples such as corn and soybeans, the food companies are under constant pressure to get customers to stuff more and more into their mouths.

"The real root of the problem is Wall Street," Nestle says. "You've got a situation in which every company is trying to grow and there's only so much people can eat." While valiantly working to take trans fat out of their food products -- and advertise that fact -- companies can look as though they're doing their part to improve Americans' health without cutting into profits: "In a sense, it's a bone thrown to the food industry: Here's something you can do to clean up your act that won't put you out of business," she says.

And the government neatly avoids antagonizing the food industry by never saying you shouldn't eat what they're selling. Imagine federal dietary standards that said, "Stop eating Big Macs, Doritos and Oreos," Simon, of the Center for Informed Food Choices, has written. "Those are recommendations that most Americans could understand, but not ones we are likely to hear."

I asked the owner of the Tiburon restaurant that was the scene of my delicious debauch about his decision to switch from trans fat to rice oil for frying. "When you read how bad those oils are, you worry about your own health and the health of your customers," Angelo Servino told me. "Life is not all about profit sometimes."

He already used olive oil for most dishes, but now he fries in rice oil, which costs more than the trans fat stuff. Americans typically eat one in five meals out at restaurants that are under no obligation to disclose what kind of grease they're clogging their customers' arteries with. And some 40 percent of those meals are picked up from fast-food restaurants. Servino said he hopes to set an example for other restaurants.

I couldn't help thinking that shrinking the portion sizes might set a better example. Yet that would risk cutting into the bottom-line of food suppliers and restaurants and likely go against customers' expectations. After all, when we were happily stuffing our faces, my husband and I didn't say, "Um, waiter, could you bring us less chocolate, vanilla ice cream, pepperoni, veal, prosciutto and cheese?"

Pity the nutritionists, who are sounding ever more like so many Cassandras as Americans search for some easy solution -- now: 0 grams trans fat! -- while getting fatter and fatter. In my no trans fat dinner, I'm pretty sure I blew through my 267 daily "discretionary calories," allotted for such niceties as cheese, sugar and alcohol in the new 2005 federal dietary guidelines, long before the dessert arrived.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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