Monday, July 28, 2008

News from the trans fatosphere

Sorry for the hiatus.

I guess the big news since last time is that California is banning trans fats from restaurants.

It sounds like good news to me, but already the whining has begun. The owner of Bertha's Soul Food in Los Angeles is quoted in the LA Times as saying that "The government is infringing too much on the rights of people to even eat what they want." OK everyone, raise your hand if you "want" to eat trans fats... I didn't think so.

This is the problem with America. (OK, one of a few problems with America.) Here we have restaurants selling us all sorts of nasty-ass chemicals and calling it "food" and not being legally required to even tell us what kind of terrible shit is in there. Finally the state government has decided to step in to protect its citizens from one particularly insidious type of "food" ingredient that should never have been invented, and now restaurant owners are calling this an infringement on consumers' rights. Give me a fucking break.

Now, I will admit that the trans fat ban may be based partly on some wrong, crappy attitudes held by some of our fine leaders in Sacramento. According to this New York Times piece, the author of the trans fats bill, (Democrat) Tony Mendoza, was motivated by "obese children": "They are heavy. They eat out a lot, and you realize there are trans fats out there." Umm, connection? Not really seeing it. But at least the Governator's statement about the bill (the parts I've seen in the news reports, anyway) refrained from veering into scary-fat-kids-OMG-panic-obesity-epidemic territory. Of course we know he's not the world's most enlightened guy when it comes to things fat, but at least in his statement he focuses on the link between trans fats and heart disease rather than "obesity". And in any case, whatever the real motivation for the trans fat ban, I consider it a win.

Now, how long before VegNews gets in on the whining?

The image is from ABC News. Do you love it as much as I do?


Natalie said...

I dunno, man. I'm generally of the opinion that the government shouldn't take on the role of legislating behaviors. Trans fats are illegal today; what's gonna be illegal tomorrow? Eating kit-kats? What if I want a kit-kat--just one? What if they take it farther and, I dunno, some sex position is illegal because it causes decreased blood flow which is linked to some crazy disorder? And now, as a responsible adult, I can't get freaky how I want?

Okay, an extreme analogy, but the point is that I see it as a slippery slope.

I'd much prefer that an NGO or even the government start a widespread public service/awareness campaign against the nasty foods--much like they did against pollution and littering when we were kids. By the time I was old enough to make my own decisions about what to do with my trash, environmentalism had been so ingrained in my mind that recycling seemed natural and I never would have considered, say, throwing my water bottles in the lake (or whatever).

Our Nancy-Reagan anti-drug stuff was the same thing. I didn't start snorting coke not because it was illegal, but because by the time I was aware it was an option, it didn't seem very appealing.

And honestly, I believe most people could make the same self-motivated decisions against trans fats. I think most people already DO. The problem is that there aren't many AFFORDABLE, healthy alternatives available to the poor, non-Whole-Foods-shoppin', non-organic-buyin' communities. There's a reason that heart disease is prevalent among disadvantaged communities, and I don't think the base of that reason is that restaurants use trans fats. I think the problem is more systemic than that, and that's what we should focus on.

Just my...well, not two cents, because this is long, so more like $2. :)

Mary said...

I don't consider this a case of legislating behavior. If you're really hooked on trans fats, you can still go to the grocery store and buy a whole shopping cart full of it -- only restaurants are subject to the ban. And I think that is a good thing, because it is precisely in restaurants where the consumer is most vulnerable. You have no idea what they're putting in your food back there in the kitchen, but at least now you can know that (assuming the restaurant is obeying the law) there won't be any trans fats in it.

I also don't think a public awareness campaign would be nearly as effective as the ban. I agree that a lot of people are already aware of the dangers of trans fats, but it's really hard to avoid them. Let's take me as an example (since I'm the example I know best). I've been aware of the trans fat problem for several years, and at least three years ago I decided to cut them out. So I never buy any packaged food that lists trans fats (or even "zero trans fats" but with partially hydrogenated oil listed in the ingredients). But does this mean I don't eat trans fats? No. I probably eat them at least a couple of times a month at restaurants. I never know for sure because the law does not require restaurants to tell you, and so they generally don't. Some little hole-in-the-wall ethnic joint sure as shit isn't going to list their food's nutritional info on any website, the way they do at McDonald's and Subway (i.e., the kind of restaurants I don't patronize). Yes, I could ask, but I'm not about to walk over to the kitchen and try to engage a busy cook who barely speaks English in a pantomimed conversation about partially hydrogenated oils, and even if I did, I seriously doubt I'd get a satisfying answer.

And finally, I have to object to the claim about public awareness campaigns on the issues of littering and illegal drug use. Both of those things are banned by the government, and in fact they both result in hefty penalties! (I'd actually say the penalties are ridiculously disproportionate, at least in California -- $1000 for littering? And don't get me started on drug policy.) So I don't buy the argument that people make "self-motivated decisions" to avoid those things because of some ad they saw on TV.

Anonymous said...

FYI - The burrito you talked about in your last post has trans fats in it. Don't make the government police your food. Do it yourself. If you don't know what it's made of or with, don't eat it. It's not that hard.

Mary said...

Wow, I seem to have touched a nerve. Do you own a restaurant or something, Anonymous? Nice name, btw.

In any case, you're talking out your ass -- you have no idea whether that burrito had any trans fats in it, and that's my whole point. I watched them grill the veggies, and they were wrapped in a plain flour tortilla. Which could have had trans fats in it, but didn't necessarily.

Now that I think about it, the airport incident is a perfect example of why a ban on trans fats is a good idea. When you eat in an airport, you're at the mercy of whatever restaurants are available there. You can't just drive a little farther to a restaurant that you know uses all fresh ingredients. So I chose the place where I could get a vegetarian burrito over the other available options -- Starbucks or Panda Express.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the tortilla had trans fats in it. They probably cooked the veggies in butter or oil. The sour cream you almost ate probably had trans fats in it. And since I know you like guacamole, guess what else you ate with trans fats. No, I don't own a restaurant and I don't eat in restaurants - mainly because I don't know what they put in their food. I'm just so sick of people blaming others for their weight and health problems. You know what airports offer to eat so bring your own food to the airport.
- Dave

Mary said...

OK Dave, your tone is pissing me off. I'd delete your last comment, but it made you sound so stupid that I thought I'd leave it up so everyone could get a good laugh. I also feel the need to respond on a couple of points.

First, I didn't get the sour cream. I thought that was obvious from my post.

Second, guacamole doesn't have trans fats in it unless you put something gross in there. I don't know what kind of guacamole you're eating that has trans fats, but I wouldn't touch it myself. My guacamole recipe has no ingredients with trans fats. Avocados do contain fat, but no trans fats. Get a clue.

And finally, I'm not blaming any "problems" on other people here, so whoever you're so pissed off at, go take it somewhere else. Because do you know what *I'm* sick of? People who like to tell everyone else "how it is" in a smug asshole tone when they don't know what the fuck they're talking about.

Natalie said...

Not that I'm defending Dave, but he *did* say, "the sour cream you ALMOST ate."

This sounds like I'm a huge jerk too, but I kinda agree with him on some points. Now, where I differ from Dave is that I don't believe you, or anyone else, A) are bitching about your weight (does he not understand the point of this blog?), or B) blame others for health problems (which you don't personally have).

I won't make the points of: Hey, if it bothers someone, why WON'T they take the time to ask what's going into their food? or Hey, why not give people the choice to kill themselves if they want? Clearly, you're not going to see or agree with either of those points.

What I will stress is that this is a really white, educated thing to worry about. Let's talk about why trans fats are really a problem. Your few grams of 'em a month at a restaurant aren't going to do much harm to you--you've said yourself you still eat out, and since you're healthy the rest of the time, I'm assuming you probably shrug off those trans fats you take in at the restaurant. So really, banning trans fats won't benefit you significantly (since the few you take in aren't hurting you significantly right now). Who will the ban benefit? Poor people who have inadequate access to healthy food choices. Why do I not hear any academic types talk about this? Let's talk about why we're banning trans fats at the soul food hole-in-the-wall instead of picketing Whole Foods to distribute organic produce to the ghetto.

I'm just sayin'.
And yes, I get fired up because I think arguments like these are evidence of privilege that people don't even realize they have. Making the decision to support this ban--when admittedly, it will have very little impact on you--is basically saying, "Hey po' folk! I know what's good for you!" And ya know, I get riled up about that.

Mary said...

OK, good catch, Natalie -- Dave actually noticed that I didn't eat the sour cream. Given that, now I don't understand why he mentioned it. (Does he imagine that I ingested a few grams of trans fats by virtue of "almost" eating the sour cream? And really, how much of it would be in *sour cream* anyway, even if it contained chicken broth? I know there are naturally occurring amounts of trans fats in some meat and dairy products, but we're talking about pretty small amounts.)

In any case, I just wanted to address the accusation that my supporting the ban on trans fats amounts to me telling poor people that I know what's best for them and they don't. I think this is the exact opposite of the truth, and this is one of the major reasons I support the trans fat ban.

I am assuming that most people would rather eat healthy if they had the means and the time. But a lot of people lack one or both of those things, so they sometimes eat at restaurants (except for Dave, who claims to never eat at restaurants, but I think that's bullshit). And given that people will eat at restaurants, I think that they deserve to know that they aren't eating something truly horrific, even if they are poor and therefore have to eat at cheap restaurants, which are probably more likely to use trans fats. I am totally with you about the elitist attitude that says that everyone should just "eat better", problem solved. A classic example is Michael Pollan's suggestion that everyone should eat local and organic, as if everyone has easy access to good local organic food and can totally afford the extra cost. I hate that shit. I am against that shit. But the thing is, if you make a state law saying that restaurants can't serve you trans fats, it levels the playing field. It is no longer the case that I, as a priveleged middle-class person, can afford to go to places that serve healthier food while poor people end up going to places that cook with Crisco. Now we can all eat at places without trans fats. I think it is great that the government is willing to step in and prevent restaurants from serving us this nasty chemical without our knowledge. I believe this is government regulation at its best. I might have been just as happy if they required restaurants to disclose which of their menu items contained trans fats, but I'd just as soon know that none of them did.

I just wanted to add one more thing, which is that I don't think there are any foods that you can't make without trans fats. Trans fatty oils are pretty much like natural oils, except that they have a longer shelf life, which is apparently why restaurants use them. Way back when, before trans fats were invented, people could cook and bake just fine. So it's not the case that we're talking about preventing consumers from eating certain foods that they currently enjoy. Anything you can make with trans fats, you can make without trans fats. So I still don't see how it's an issue of consumers' rights.

Natalie said...

What I'm trying to say is that even if our intentions are good--leveling the playing field, etc.--it's still us, privileged white people, who are making that call. It's not an artery-clogged poor dude who ate at McDonald's everyday for 10 years. Whatever opinion we have, even if it's a good-intentioned one, is coming from a foreign place. And no, we can't always avoid that (or even often avoid it), but I see it happen with so many bigger-deal things that I get worked up when it's these small things.

Universal healthcare is the one issue that would benefit the disadvantaged that I've seen supported by sizable groups of disadvantaged people. I'm not sure where I personally stand on the issue, but seeing as I'm capable of affording private insurance, I figure my opinion isn't worth as much as those who really NEED universal healthcare. So I'll go with the flow, know what I mean? That's why I'm all for the PSAs before we legislate the crap out of everything.

And by the way, science has found a new way to ingest things by merely seeing them. Haven't you heard? I ate a dairy cow today and I will eat an actual cow PASTURE tomorrow.

Mary said...

I get what you mean, but since trans fats affect all of us (even if some are more affected than others), I still think it's fair for me to have an opinion about the ban.

Also, just to be clear, I am *not* in support of the ban on fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. Talk about patronizing -- that article makes me sick! It's all about scary obesity statistics, and the idea that poor people are just passive victims of whatever fast food restaurants are around them.

OK, I think I echoed a little of that in my earlier claim that most people would like to eat healthier if they could. So let me rephrase it in order not to be a total hypocrite -- I think a lot of people would prefer not to eat trans fats, all things being equal. But I am not assuming that people don't really choose to go to McDonald's. Nobody *has* to eat at McDonald's. And people should be free to eat there if they want. I just think that McDonald's should *not* be free to serve people trans fats, especially when there are perfectly fine alternatives.

Love the cow bit, btw. I hadn't heard about that new scientific development, but think about all the time and money it will save. Goodbye, food shortages!

Anonymous said...

Re: "Second, guacamole doesn't have trans fats in it unless you put something gross in there. I don't know what kind of guacamole you're eating that has trans fats, but I wouldn't touch it myself. My guacamole recipe has no ingredients with trans fats. Avocados do contain fat, but no trans fats. Get a clue."

I know that your homemade guac doesn't have trans fats. However, your homemade guac doesn't sit in the fridge for two months without going bad. Guac served in a chain restaurant comes in a big bucket and has a ton of weird stuff in it. That's the point. When people eat in restaurants they know, or should know, that the food is not as pure as if they were to make the same meal themselves.

And, I didn't mean that you were blaming your weight or health (both of which you're happy with) on others. I was using the term "people" to mean people like the family who sued McDonald's because they ate there everyday and got fat.

The sour cream comment was just to point out that trans fats are common in a lot of foods in restaurants that you wouldn't expect them to normally be in -- much like the chicken broth.

- Dave

Mary said...

Thank you for clarifying, Dave. And sorry I went off on you earlier, but it sure sounded like you were talking about "me" and not "people", and if you were talking about "me", you got some of it wrong. FYI, I haven't eaten guacamole in a chain restaurant for at least a couple of years. I very rarely eat it in non-chain restaurants either, because it always disappoints. Once you've had "Gloriously Garlicky Guacamole", there's no turning back, IMO.

I am with you on eating in restaurants -- which is part of why I like to post recipes on this blog (granted, they are often desserts, but none of my recipes contain trans fats, except my Christmas cookie recipe, but in that case I was careful to point out how to make it without trans fats). I think it is always better to cook and eat at home, but I also think it's realistic to accept the fact that not everyone likes cooking or has the time. Given that, I think it's better for everyone if there aren't trans fats in restaurants, even for the benefit of those who only rarely go to restaurants.

Anonymous said...

Hey, we are in complete agreement on one point anyway. Your garlicky guacamole is THE BEST (and very healthy!)

HappySmiles said...

I don't know why people are having such knee jerk reactions to the government placing regulations on trans fats. The government already has tons of regulations in place, and most of them are there to protect us, not infringe upon our rights. Americans seem to scream "Communism!" whenever the government does ANYTHING.

Does anyone honestly WANT to eat trans fat? Ick. Sure people know trans fats are bad for them. Does that mean it shouldn't be made illegal? People know heroin is bad, and I've never heard that raised as an excuse to make it legal...

Anonymous said...

What about cigarettes?

meerkat said...

I try to avoid trans fats, so I am for restaurants not using them. I can avoid them easily when grocery shopping in the US because things have ingredients labels, but restaurants don't make it so easy to find out what's in things. I don't trust waiters and other staff; they weren't hired to know things like this.

In Japan, they don't even write hydrogenated vegetable oil differently from nonhydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredients. And the government is in denial. So I am kinda screwed.

meerkat said...

Oh, but I have heard concerns that not being able to use trans fats will cause more restaurants to use animal fats and thus de-veganize foods. I already got made fun of by a waiter for asking what kind of oil they fried things in.