Just when you thought it was safe to eat…

As I was reaching for my veggies and hummus from the refrigerator in the department break room this morning, something on the computer screen in the corner caught my attention. As part of an ongoing effort to help people make healthier choices (to reduce health care costs both for the company and employees), they recently mounted kiosks with nutrition information and announcements about an Eat Right for Life challenge that starts September 1.

I signed up for the challenge already, and I had obtained a copy of the presentation that displays on the kiosk so I didn’t have to stand there in the break room watching it. But some new slides got added, and the one with the word “poison” caught my eye. “Simply put, trans fats are poisons…. There is no known safe limit for any amount of this sinister, noxious agent.”

I knew trans fats were considered bad, but … poison? What makes these partially hydrogenated fats worse than saturated fats, which we’re not supposed to eat too much of but don’t have to avoid completely? I went on the internet and read several articles on the subject, all of which agreed that trans fats are worse because they not only raise “bad” cholesterol but also lower “good” cholesterol.

Well, not a big problem, I thought. It’s easy to find products that say “no trans fat” these days. Except that … in my search for articles on trans fats I found one that says the stuff companies are using in place of trans fats is even worse. And of course they’re not advertising its presence on their labels, the way they do the absence of trans fats. I read a bunch more articles, and wondered how much of the new nasty stuff I’ve been eating, and feeding to my family.

Have you ever heard of interesterified fat? (The WordPress spell checker hasn’t.) Since partially hydrogenated oils (i.e. trans fats) have been deemed unhealthy, makers of processed food had to find some other way to convert liquid oils to solid fats. (The solid fats give foods such as crackers and cookies a longer shelf life, as well as making them appealingly crunchy or creamy.) So instead they fully hydrogenate oils, and since that makes them too hard to use, they mix them with liquid oils.

Eventually I’m sure they’ll have to start putting something on the food labels to show they use interesterified fats (by which time I assume they’ll have come up with a new and even more unhealthy replacement), but for now it’s hard to tell. I read that some clues to watch out for are “fully hydrogenated,” or “high stearate” or “stearic rich” oils. Hmm, I think I’ve seen those words in food labels, and wondered what they meant. Or just look for “Zero trans fats!” – since without the trans fats, they have most likely used interesterified fats to get the same effect.

My mother always argued that the less processed the food, the healthier. She took it to extremes sometimes, such as deliberately undercooking foods, not only to retain more vitamins but to make the jaw work harder to chew the far-from-tender food. And she worried so much about what went into her foods that I was sure she was less healthy than if she had eaten what most people considered a reasonably healthy diet and let herself enjoy it.

Now mainstream nutritionists are saying the same thing – the less processed the better. (Though I haven’t heard any of them recommend undercooked brown rice.) And it sounds good – until I try to figure out what to cook for dinner when I’m tired or in a hurry. Today is Wednesday, which means I make something with ground beef (“Hump Day Hamburger Dinner). Usually that means browning the ground beef and mixing it with Kraft Mac&Cheese, Hamburger Helper, or ramen noodles.

I make the packaged macaroni and cheese by adding margarine, which may be trans fat free but probably has IF (interesterified fat). I only use half of what the directions call for, but if there’s no safe amount of trans fat to eat, I’m sure there’s no safe amount of IF either. It looks like Hamburger Helper hasn’t switched from trans fats to IF yet – the ingredients in my favorite flavor (Cheesy Enchilada) include partially hydrogenated soybean oil. The ramen noodles, likewise, have generally been fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (I’ve read that air-dried varieties are available but cost considerably more).

I haven’t been reading food labels too closely for quite a while – since I reached the point I couldn’t read them without my reading glasses, which I don’t take to the supermarket. (I’m not looking at actual labels right now, I’m finding them all online.) They’re hard enough to decipher even when I can read them, between the strange chemical names and the fact that “per serving” information can be pretty misleading.

I just looked up the margarine label, for instance. It says it has zero grams of trans fats per serving, yet the first ingredient is “Liquid And Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil.” Oh, that’s right, if there’s less than half a gram per serving they can round it down to zero. But do I only eat what they define as a serving when I use it in the macaroni and cheese? Plus, the ingredients also include “Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil” – I’m guessing that’s interesterified fat.

For myself, I’d be happy to mix the ground beef in with spaghetti sauce and serve it over spaghetti. I used to make that frequently, but my husband doesn’t care for tomato sauce and would ask for his without the sauce, and the boys soon followed suit. I started buying alfredo sauce instead, which they like much better. As best as I can tell it doesn’t have either trans fat or IF, just more total fat (including saturated) than I would like. Sometimes I give them the cheese sauce and use regular spaghetti sauce myself, but it’s a nuisance to serve dinner two different ways.

Same problem if I make stir fry, which is another of my favorites. My husband can’t eat the broccoli (doesn’t digest it well due to the bariatric surgery), and the boys would rather not. (They would rather have their veggies in the form of salad, which is fine with me.) And it’s pretty hard to find stir fry vegetable mixes that don’t have a lot of broccoli.

Let’s see, that leaves shepherd’s pie – but I use margarine to make the mashed potatoes. Or I dig out some of my casserole recipes that aren’t quite so quick and easy. … Or I tell myself that worrying about nutrition is worse than eating the wrong fats, and just make something easy and be done with it.

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5 Responses to Just when you thought it was safe to eat…

  1. modestypress says:

    Your parents and my parents were much like mine.

    The trick is to worry just enough about following a healthful lifestyle with healthful choices without engaging is so much fretting and hairsplitting and worrying as to harm one’s health…

  2. Peter L says:

    If one eats healthy foods, then one will live x years. If one eats unhealthy, then life is x-y years. However, as a Christian I know that God has my days numbered, so that if I eat unhealthy foods, I die the same day as if I eat healthy. The difference is quality of life. Do I want to enjoy a full life or be bedridden with some terrible disease. Dietary caused diseases are the easiest to prevent.

    I eat a mixture of healthy foods (thanks to Mrs L insisting on natural ingredients) and unhealthy (thanks to the teacher’s lounge and it mixture of donuts and cakes).

    • Pauline says:

      I agree that God has our days numbered. But I don’t believe that means that our behavior does not affect when we will die. Do you think I can run out in front of a car and figure it can’t kill me if it’s not my time to die?

  3. Peter L says:

    No, I don’t. I just don’t see the point of worrying so much about what I eat that I get an ulcer or some other worry-caused problem.

    • Pauline says:

      Oh, I definitely agree to that. (Though from what I have read, they have discovered that ulcers are caused primarily by bacteria, not stress.) My mother was a prime example of consequences of that, and I made up my mind I’d rather deal with the consequences of unhealthy food than unhealthy worry.

      But I probably have gone too much in that direction, and need to give somewhat more attention that I generally have to what I eat – and what I serve my family.

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