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June 9, 2003

My Trans Fatty Acid Lawsuit

If you listen to or read any sort of news, you'll probably know that a while back Stephen Joseph, an attorney in California, launched a lawsuit against Kraft Foods, the makers of the popular and now infamous Oreo cookie. The basis of the lawsuit was an obscure piece of law that allowed such a suit if there was a danger to consumers from using a product (ie., eating the cookies) that they would not likely know about. In the case of the Oreo, the white cream in the middle is loaded with trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, or simply hydrogenated oils. Whatever you call them, they are bad for you. Very bad.

Over the past decade (or more) the trend has been to cut fat out of your diet. Well, apparently fat alone is not the whole story: there are, in fact, both good fats and bad fats. Trans fatty acids are the worst kind of fat to eat, bar none. In one article I read fairly recently, the authors stated that "trans fatty acids have no place in a healthy diet". Pretty strong words.

In fact, that article (from Scientific American) substantially changed the way our household thinks about food. That one article was so well written, and the authors so well informed and authoritative that we decided to implement some immediate and somewhat radical changes to our diet, based on a heavily revised FDA "food pyramid".

First off, we've stopped eating bread and pasta that isn't whole wheat wherever possible. For the longest time we were buying multigrain breads, and thought we were doing well. Close examination of the ingredients, however, disclosed that said loaves were simply white bread tarted up with some grains and seeds. So unless the ingredients say "whole wheat flour" first, we don't get it. Same goes for pasta. We've found one brand of pasta that covers everything from spaghetti to lasagna, rotini to penne, all in whole wheat. It tastes identical to regular pasta, and is much better for us. If whole wheat isn't up your alley, pasta made from rice flour is available as well. Brown rice, too.

The really radical changes we made were cutting out beef and pork (in fact, all red meat) from our diet. Well, almost - we call it "no cow, no pig", but in all honesty we've just really cut down. It's hard to eat out without coming across beef or pork, and my wife would just die without bacon the odd time we go out to brunch. The idea is to heavily reduce the amount of saturated fats that exist in red meat. Poultry and fish have much less saturated fats, and much better fats, including the much-hyped omega 3 fatty acids. (And before you correct me, pork IS a red meat, despite what the Pork Marketing Board has taught you.)

As part of this "no beef, no pork" long-term experiment, we've decided that this summer we should try to find a good non-beef burger to barbeque. Turkey or chicken burgers are OK, but hardly the same. I find they tend to come off the barbeque as lightly browned white pucks of pressed meat, with little juiciness to them. Perhaps I really suck at cooking them, but that doesn't change the fact that they just don't do it for us. So, we're looking for a good alternative. Be it fish, chicken, turkey, tofu, whatever - we're going to try them all. We've already tried M&M's veggie burgers, and may have already found the pinnacle of non-beef burgers. Likely we'll try a few more things before we decide.

In that vein, when we were grocery shopping a few weeks ago we came across a President's Choice product called, simply enough, Alternative Burgers. Sounds right up our alley, right? Well, my wife checked the nutritional information panel on the box and was horrified. First off, each patty contains a horrendous 18 grams of fat. To put that in perspective, one of these non-beef burger patties has 2/3rds of the fat of a fully dressed Big Mac, special sauce and all. Wow. But wait, it gets better. She also checked the ingredient list, and was further disgusted to find that the 2nd ingredient in these death patties was hydrogenated oil. Yes, trans fatty acids, the exact same coagulant death that Oreos are packed with.

Not only did we not leave the store with any PC Alternative Burgers, but I had half a mind to launch my own lawsuit against President's Choice. Oreo filling being bad for you is somewhat surprising, but nobody in their right mind thinks that Oreos are actually good for you in any way. However, people like myself looking to eat healthier are going to see these hydrogenated death pucks and think, "Oh good, something healthier than regular hamburgers!" and pick some up, perhaps without ever reading the label. That, my friends, is simply horrifically negligent, and perhaps even criminal. It's wholly misleading - the fact of these burgers' nutritional value is the polar opposite of what they appear to be and present themselves as, ie., better than your regular burger.

So, what have we learned? Read the labels. Most foods nowadays have the nutritional information panels printed on the package, and allow you to determine how much fat, protein, carbohydrate, sodium, etc., you'd get in a suggested serving. This alone can be a great help. However, don't overlook the ingredient list. Not all nutritional labels break down the fat content into saturated (bad) and poly- or mono-unsaturated (good) fats, and I've never seen them list trans fatty acids. For that, you have to look to the ingredients, and look for those hydrogenated oils, partial or otherwise. Avoid, avoid, danger, danger! The ingredient list will also let you know whether your bread is truly whole wheat or not, whether your beverage or yogurt contains sugar or asparatame and/or acesulfame potassium instead. I know you're not used to going to the grocery store and reading a lot, but nobody's going to hold your hand and tell you what to eat (other than your mother perhaps), so you have to do some legwork yourself.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to bake some whole-wheat low-fat banana date bread. It may not be a bag of Oreos, but that's just fine with me.


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