Trans Fat Fighting
Fat is not a four-letter word, but in this country, it's treated like one. As a country, we are obsessed with fat, yet we are getting fatter and fatter.
No matter your shape or size, fat does play an important positive role in our diets. We all need fat to help maintain healthy skin and hair, body temperature, healthy cell function, plus we need the help of fat for energy storage and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Naturally occurring fats come from food -- meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, some fruit. There's saturated fat, which increases cholesterol levels, and then there's unsaturated fat, which helps keep cholesterol levels down and lower the risk of heart disease. There are lots of factors that contribute to our overall cholesterol level (which, according to the American Heart Association, ideally should be below 200 mg/dL) -- genetics, physical activity, and of course, diet.
Of course, life is never that simple, and we all get fat from time to time. But it's my belief, that if we all just ate naturally occurring fats -- be it meat or plant based, we probably wouldn't be so darn fat.
Which leads me to man-made fat, also known as trans fat. Simply defined, a trans fat occurs when hydrogen is added to a liquid fat, which allows it to remain in a semi-solid state at room temperature and acts as a stabilizer to extend the shelf life of all kinds of processed foods.
Until January 1 of this year, consumers didn't know by reading a nutrition label whether a box of cookies or your favorite bottled salad dressing contained trans fat. The big deal is that trans fat has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It simultaneously raises LDL cholesterol levels (the bad kind) and lowers HDL (heart healthy) cholesterol levels. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires food manufacturers to list trans fat on nutrition labels.
According to its Web site, the "FDA estimates that 3 years after the effective date, January 2006, trans fat labeling would annually prevent from 600 to 1,200 heart attacks and save 250-500 lives. Based on this estimate, this rule will realize a cost savings of $900 million to $1.8 billion per year in medical costs, lost productivity, and pain and suffering."
With the government officially on board as trans fat police, does this mean that we'll stop being so fat? But what about fast food -- does the same level of scrutiny and label requirements apply at your favorite burger and fries joint?
Of course, if you've read books such as "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser and "Fat Land" by Greg Critser, or watched the movie "Super Size Me," you know that eating fast food with any degree of regularity will make you fat. And that's because the food is cooked with hydrogenated oils, which are loaded with our friend, the trans fat.
But in the eyes of the government, the fast food world is exempt from the official trans fat microscope. According the FDA Web site, "Restaurants are not required to provide full nutrition labeling for their food products, unless nutrient claims are made, such as 'Low Fat' or 'Low Sodium.' To know which fats are being used in the preparation of the food you're eating or ordering, a good tip to remember is 'ask before you order'."
Sounds like the trans fat Wild West. Recently, though, a few individuals have decided to take trans fat matters into their own hands - and legislative bodies.
Last month, Chicago City Council Alderman Edward Burke, introduced a bill proposing a ban on trans fat in restaurants, stating that such a ban would "protect its citizens from the ravages of unhealthy trans fats by banning their use in restaurants."
The bill has been received less than warmly by many of Burke's colleagues in Council and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. This week, Burke agreed to a watered-down version of the bill that would affect only restaurants with $20 million in sales, thus eliminating smaller, independently owned eateries.
If the bill were passed, Chicago would become the first city in the country to enact a mandated ban on trans fat. In 2003, Denmark became the first country to ban trans fat, and Canada has recently introduced legislated limits.
I asked "Fat Land" author Greg Critser his thoughts on the Chicago bill. His response: "It is a good idea, but it will be impossible to implement and enforce without a dramatic expansion in the city's restaurant inspection service. About the only thing I've seen expanding in Chicago is something else -- and it ain't its famed broad shoulders."
So what do you think? Should the government get involved in the banning of trans fat? Should the FDA requirements of listing trans fat extend to fast food and big chain restaurants? Should we as a country do anything about the trans fat phenomenon?
Share your thoughts in the comments area below.
P.S. Some companies are making changes on their own. Wendy's has announced plans to use a soy-corn blend oil for its French fries and breaded chicken items, beginning in August. The switchover will take effect in Wendy's locations in the United States and Canada.
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