“Are there snakes in your walls?”

Sensationalism sells.  TV news is notoriously shoddy because most news shows (especially the local ones) comprise sound snippets and taglines with little rigor behind the stories.  How many times have we seen wanna-be-shocking news stories like, “Are playgrounds dangerous for children?”  and “Deadly kitchen appliances?”  Well, OF COURSE kids can get hurt while playing on jungle-gyms, and OF COURSE you’ll get zapped if you drop a plugged-in toaster into the sink while you are washing dishes!

Is banning playgrounds and toasters the answer?  Are toasters and jungle-gyms the new bogeymen of the domestic world; waiting to hurt you and your kids?  I think not, but the preceeding questions sure make for exciting slogans to be used by talking-heads, no?

Ok, where am I going with this?  We are seeing this sort of sensationalism in the food world more and more.  Cases in point: trans-fat and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  These food-products get tons of bad press.  They are being portrayed as bogeymen by politicians, news-casters, and even food-vendors to misinform the public.  The misinformed public is then further duped into doing what these politicians and food vendors want.  Do I think it’s a conspiracy?  Nope.  I think it’s just people taking advantage of a form of scare-tactics.  I think it’s more like psychic-hotlines (i.e. nonsense), than Watergate (i.e. cover-up).  

People like having a scapegoat of sorts.  “It’s [insert ingredient]’s fault that I am unhealthy.  Never mind that I consume more calories than I burn.  Nevermind that I eat prepared/packaged/processed foods at least once-a-day, everyday.  Nevermind that I drink cola everyday (which is essentially HFCS-juice).”  Taking a larger view is hard, innit? 

Let’s start with trans-fat and the whole NYC ban.  Trans-fat hit the scene in the early 1900’s for primarily one reason: it was a more convenient lard subsitute for bakers/cooks.  It was a fat that was solid at room temperature and had a longer shelf-life than lard.  As time went on lard became the bogeyman of the food world, and people turned to alternatives to lard for more healthful eating.  I read an excellent “perspective article” on the topic in the New England Journal of Medicine (Susan Okie, M.D.; NEJM Vol. 356:2017-2021, No. 20; May 17, 2007).  Here is a trans fat timeline that I pinched from the aformentioned article (click it to enlarge):

fat and all that

Also, a quote, from the same article:

“…studies began to raise concerns about the health effects of artificial trans fats, and by the 1990s, both controlled feeding trials and prospective epidemiologic studies had implicated them in causing undesirable changes in blood lipid levels and raising cardiac risk.”

“…trans fat intake has been estimated to cause about 6% of coronary events in the United States, including about 27,000 deaths per year nationwide and about 1400 per year in New York City. Since New Yorkers, like other Americans, get roughly one third of their daily calories from restaurant  food, Thomas Frieden (New York City Board of Health Commisioner) estimates that eliminating artificial trans fats from the city’s menus should save between 200 and 500 lives per year, depending on the mix of fats that  are substituted.  The benefits could be considerably greater.”  

“It was recently estimated that completely replacing artificial trans fats with more healthful unsaturated fats might avert 12 to 22% of myocardial infarctions and deaths due to coronary disease.”  

Yeah, uh, Freidman, I’m not so sure…

It’s true that trans fat is bad stuff, really bad, and it should certainly not become a regular part of anyone’s diet; ever.  It really is THAT bad for one’s health.  It’s the worst fat you can eat, and for that reason, we should stop adding it to foods and go back to the original bogeyman; saturated fat (but this time from vegetable sources to avoid cholesterol).  

My problem is this: This is what happens when you focus on a single dietary component as though simply avoiding it is some kind of panacea.  You gotta read the article; here’s a quote:

“It’s craziness,” said Mr. Coffman, 45, who says he eats fair food every day but who appears surprisingly trim. “They’re using this for a marketing ploy. It’s a way to convince people that they can eat more — that somehow all of this is safe now and you can eat all you want — when we all know that’s not true.”

Focusing on food bogeymen accomplishes nothing. Although I understand the good intentions of those who are banning trans fat, I think it will accomplish little.  More from the NEJM article:

“Faced with national epidemics of obesity and diabetes,” said Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University, “we have to look at the big gorilla in the room, which is total calories” and to reduce saturated fat intake as well.    

“Marion Nestle, a professor of  nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, agrees — and she worries that manufacturers’ aggressive marketing of products that contain “0 grams trans fat” leads consumers to think that they can eat them with impunity. Most people “have no clue that this has nothing to do with calories,” said Nestle. “Guess what? Nobody’s going to lose weight.'”

You can see where this is going with HFCS.  Here’s what’s gets me, HFCS is sugar.  It’s a mix of pure glucose and pure fructose (at different ratios to control sweetness).  These are natural sugars refined from an unlikely source (corn), but natural sugars all the same.  Pure cane sugar is sucrose. 

When you eat even the most natural cane sugar, your body immediately breaks the glycosidic bond and converts the sucrose into glucose and fructose.  Like so. 

HFCS is not, in and of itself, bad for you.  Sure, some people gripe that the ratio in HFCS is not one-to-one as it in in sucrose, but that’s the case in a lot of foods, like apples, melons, and honey, to name a few.  If we want to reduce our risk of type-II diabetes, and other over-consumption-of-sugar related illnesses, we must avoid/reduce consumption of sugar, period.  Here is a nice little article on the stuff from the American Chemical Sociery.  A little digging found this article (and others) to support my point. 

What’s worse for you, vodka from potatoes or corn?  (<-kindly excuse the parable)  The corn based vodka may be cheaper, consumed more, and therefore blamed for more instances of alcoholism and cirrhosis, but it’s the same stuff; ethanol.  If the corn-based ethanol is cast as the “worse one,” consuming more of the potato based ethanol is not better for you.  Unfortunatley, people lose sight of this; food marketers don’t, and we start seeing all sorts of misinformation.  

I guess what I am saying with all this is: don’t believe the hype, stay focused on the big picture (i.e. total calories, whole foods, limiting meat, maximizing nutrition, exercise). 

That’s why I prefer artificial sweetners, they’re harmless, right?  Uh oh, here we go again

Ok, I’ll leave you with this last piece of data to contemplate:

Now that’s good data.  Source unknown

Share your thoughts.

4 Responses to ““Are there snakes in your walls?””

  1. Amy says:

    Wait, so I should stop drinking diet Coke now? Nooooo!

  2. […] warrior August 30, 2007 at 2:07 pm by Steve Barnes, senior writer Check out the latest manifesto– well, it’s more an appeal for food sanity, but I like the rousing, call-to-arms […]

  3. Albany Jane says:

    I’m with you on this one. ALLLLLL the way.

    The graph – it’s hilarious. I also love people who don’t take them too seriously. Yet now I’m really hankering for a round or two on the ole Atari…

  4. alex|dimitri says:

    Albany Jane and Amy, thanks for the comments (and thanks for the link Steve).

    Cati and I saw an ad on the tube, just yesterday, for KFC. They boasted “0 grams of trans-fat!” as opposed to “now deep-fried in tubs of glistening, all-natural, fat.”

    I wonder why. (?)