They Protect Me From Me, But Who Protects Me From Them?

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"The day may come when the courage of men fails; when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day! This day we fight!"

~ Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

I've already lamented the use and abuse of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in pretty much all processed foods. It seems clear that the state, in an effort to "help" corn farmers, has hurt everyone else. But at least in that case, albeit difficult, we can still choose to avoid that poison. Several respondents to my essay made that point in their messages to me. It's tough, but the choice is still there. I agree, although without the state's involvement, our choices would certainly be larger. Then again, that's always the case, is it not? As Manual Lora and I tried to convey in our most recent joint essay, choice for each of us is best for all of us.

Enter the Trans Fat Police

In a twist of irony only available from gubmint involvement, New York State recently imposed a ban on trans fats. For those who haven't heard, trans fats are the result of trying to make vegetable fats, typically not suitable for cooking and baking due to molecular structure, into a substance suitable for both. For instance, to get that "moistness" that we all crave in our baked goods, one generally must use oil that is solid at room temperature. (And this is verified by my memory of my Grandma's biscuits!) This is relatively easy if one uses animal fats (lard, butter) or some tropical oils (coconut, palm). But somewhere back a decade or two or three ago, it became unpopular to use saturated fats.

It also became unpopular to use imported tropical oils, particularly coconut oil, although even with their high saturation level, they are still some of the healthiest oils one can consume. Not that surprisingly, the soy lobby (or the edible oil industry, if you prefer) authored most of the information used to vilify tropical oils. (I know — shocking.) Luckily, plentiful (cheap) oils were available from the fertile farmlands of the North American Continent. Unluckily, these oils were naturally polyunsaturated — lacking in hydrogen atoms along the chain of carbons — and therefore less than optimal for baking.

Worse yet, these fats were unstable and spoiled rather quickly, particularly when heated. Science came to the rescue and found a way to add hydrogen atoms along the molecular chain of these oils — via a process know as hydrogenation — creating what were called partially hydrogenated oils. The resulting substance could be used for baking and was still vegetable-based. Healthy, cheap, and produced on this continent — a veritable "trifecta" — Yahtzee!

Not quite. It was more recently discovered that these fake fats were actually much worse for you than the stuff they replaced. (That there are still people using margarine at this late date is testimony that this information hasn't quite reached the hoi polloi.) Health-conscious people began to raise a stink about these "trans fats," while study after study illustrated their awesome power for clogging arteries better than even the lardiest lard ever supposedly could.

[As an aside, studies seem to show that the prevalence of clogged arteries in the U.S., where a "war" on saturated fats has been waged for decades, is much higher than that among cultures whose diets are just chock-full of fat from blubber. When people from these cultures — e.g., Inuits — switch to more "mainstream" diets, they experience an increased rate of heart disease. (Maybe consumption of dietary fat per se isn't what makes you unhealthy?) But, I digress.]

Here we are with trans fats being banned. This occurred long after they had been placed in just about every baked item sold in the overwhelmingly large — nearing gargantuan — processed food market in the U.S.

The problems here are almost too many to name. First of all, people are (or should be) free to choose. If they really don't want to consume trans fats, they are free to not do so. If a restaurant wants to use them, I am free to not dine there while you are free to enjoy them if you like. Everyone is happy. Secondly, the prevalence of trans fats is largely the result of government interference anyway, so why would even more government involvement make things better? Let's review this little scenario.

  • Initially people are free to use whatever they want, including lard, butter, coconut oil, olive oil, and/or palm oil, etc. (Some people are fat, but hey, that was less about the fats and more about their lifestyle choices, among other things.)
  • Aggressive lobbying by the edible oil industry causes adoption, at the federal government level, of dietary goals and guidelines that incorporate the mistaken idea that consumption of saturated fat causes heart disease. (State intervention makes finding a domestic substitute for these fats financially critical.)
  • Because of inherent limitations, polyunsaturated vegetable oils are unsuitable for baking; partially hydrogenated oils are developed to mitigate these effects. (Manufacturers, seeking to maximize profits while meeting the federal guidelines eagerly incorporate this crap into, well, everything.)
  • After years of clogged arteries, heart attacks, bypass surgeries and the like, somebody discovers that making a cheap vegetable oil into a baking fat via the magic of chemistry also changes the properties of that oil for the worse. (Who knew?)
  • State intervention seeks to preclude that which was originally facilitated largely by state intervention — trans fats are banned. (Complete symmetry is achieved.)

Conclusion

Isn't it always the same thing? Second verse same as the first. By the way, any similarity in the conclusions I draw here and the message from my HFCS essay is entirely intentional. But let's be clear. It's not my place to make choices of this type for anyone else and neither is it the government's place. (I've already got a mother, but thanks anyway.) Let the right and the responsibility rest where they should.

As a matter of fact, if you want to sit by the dock of the bay stuffing your face with beef-tallow-soaked fast-food French fries, washing them down with a carbonated beverage just chock-full of HFCS while taking the edge off with an unfiltered cigarette delivered by an illegal alien after it was manufactured in a Cuban factory and subsequently soaked in crystal methamphetamine, I could not care less. I celebrate your decision to "do it your way." I might, in the words of Tony Soprano, suggest that you "consider salad" and I'd likely advise you of the dangers of "tweaking" but hey, it would still be your choice.

And, if you and your friends want to open a restaurant where second-hand smoke is actually on the menu, right next to endangered fish delicately pan seared with a delightful, but trans fat-laden chipotle sauce, I'm cool with that too. (Let's just say I'm easy and leave it at that.)

My message here is simple: I don't want your choices to become my choices because the lobbying group you hired can convince some slacker with a congressional budget that it's a good idea. Furthermore I don't want my personal choices — be they good or bad — reduced because of similar chicanery. Is that too much to ask?

But let us not forget Aragorn's words. Change has to begin with us.

Maybe, just maybe, if each of us realizes and acts upon the fact that the ultimate choice — and responsibility — should always be ours, we'll get to start choosing for ourselves sooner or later.

Hey, I can hope.

Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.

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