Last weekend my daughter’s dance school put on their annual recital. As reward for all the hard work, we told her we’d take her anywhere she wanted for dinner and a dessert. She chose Denny’s, where she had fried shrimp and a chocolate sundae. I was feeling indulgent myself and opted for the chicken-fried steak, complete with fries. I used to love chicken-fried steak, in all its crunchy, meaty, sausage-gravy-covered glory.
I don’t love it anymore. In fact, I don’t love anything fried in a restaurant anymore. My chicken-fried steak and fries somehow managed to be fried and tasteless at the same time. It’s as if Denny’s perfected a method for frying food in distilled water.
The reason, of course, is that most restaurants have finally gotten rid of trans fats, which mimicked the taste and cooking properties of natural saturated fats like lard. As we now know, trans fats are bad news. They get taken up by the body and packed into the walls of our cells, which is one of the places saturated fats are supposed to go. Unfortunately, trans fats don’t mimic the biological properties of saturated fats. Instead of strengthening our cells, trans fats weaken them. And instead of raising HDL like saturated fats do, trans fats bring it down.
And so the restaurants have finally bowed to both public and legislative pressure and gotten rid of them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’ve replaced trans fats – otherwise known as hydrogenated vegetable oils – with other vegetable oils that aren’t hydrogenated.
After my dining experience at Denny’s, I understand why the restaurants resisted switching to non-hydrogenated oils: the taste (what little taste there is) pretty much sucks. The restaurants weren’t trying to kill us with trans fats; they were trying to keep our business. Killing us was merely collateral damage.
What’s annoying is that none of this was necessary. Remember how irresistible McDonald’s fries were back when you were a wee tyke or tykess? That’s because they were fried in tallow, a form of beef fat. My grandmother used to fry chicken in lard. I’ve never eaten chicken since that tasted so good. Most people love the taste of natural animal fats, and with good reason: Mother Nature wanted us to eat them.
But of course, McDonald’s dumped the beef fat years ago. And good luck finding lard in any of your local stores, unless your town is blessed with a large immigrant population. Frying in natural animal fats is a thing of the past – and the man we can thank for this dubious development is none other than that great consumer advocate, Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. (If you’ve seen Fat Head, you know we immortalized him as an action hero, The Guy From CSPI.)
Jacobson is, always has been, and always will be convinced that saturated fat is a killer. Any dish that contains saturated fat is guaranteed to send him scurrying off to hyperventilate in front the nearest camera, shortly after his worker bees blitz the media with press releases screaming, “Contains as much saturated fat as an entire stick of butter!”
(When I need a chuckle, I picture Jacobson being transported back in time to a buffalo hunt on the Great Plains, shaking his spindly arms at some Sioux warriors about to skin a fresh kill and screaming, “Don’t eat that! It’s full of saturated fat!” If they didn’t spear him, they’d probably mistake him for a scarecrow and worry that the corn fields were soon to follow.)
Aside from the manipulated studies produced by people like Ancel Keys, there is no scientific basis for Jacobson’s paranoia about saturated fat. There have been several major studies in which researchers tried to reduce heart-disease rates by having the subjects restrict saturated fats. Those studies were colossal failures. In the Framingham study, people who ate the most saturated fat were leaner and had lower cholesterol, not higher.
Without saturated fat in the diet, your body has a difficult time absorbing the vitamins and other nutrients from your food. Your brain is made mostly of saturated fat and cholesterol, and without these essential fats, you are more likely to experience brain malfunctions, such as depression, or attention deficit disorder, or epilepsy. Kids who suffer from epilepsy have reduced or even eliminated seizures entirely by going on ketogenic diets that include plenty of natural saturated fats. Those are the scientific facts.
But of course, the Center for Science in the Public Interest isn’t interested in real science; they’re interested in pushing a vegetarian agenda. The “Science” in their title is there purely for marketing purposes. It’s designed to convince the media that their never-ending warnings are based on something resembling actual facts. And unfortunately, many in the media fall for it.
So do many people who view the media reports prompted by one of Jacobson’s hyperventilations. At the Fat Head premiere party, a friend of mine – a well-read, thoughtful friend – told me he had no idea CSPI was a vegetarian group. He assumed they were exactly what they claim to be: a group of scientists and consumer advocates who are looking out for the best interests of the public.
So let’s review how Jacobson and CSPI looked out the public interest when it comes to fried food.
In the 1980s, CSPI went after restaurants like McDonald’s for frying in beef fat. They sent out the usual press releases, and they held protests in front of restaurants. The media bought it and dutifully showed up with their cameras and microphones.
Faced with the perception that they were serving the public deep-fried heart disease, the restaurants caved. And what did they switch to after giving up beef fat and lard? Why, trans fats, of course. Jacobson and CSPI said they were perfectly safe. After all, how could bunch of vegetarian nutcases not like the idea of chemically-altered soybean oil? The soy industry also liked the idea, and they expressed their gratitude with generous donations to CSPI.
Dr. Mary Enig, a biochemist and one of the foremost experts on fats and oils, tried to warn CSPI they were making a huge mistake. She sent them letters explaining that trans fats were unnatural and would displace saturated fats in the body, which needs them.
But CSPI would have none of it. In their newsletters, they declared trans fats to be a safe alternative to “artery-clogging saturated fat!” Then they launched similar campaigns to scare movie theaters into giving up popping popcorn in coconut oil, and to pressure companies like Keebler into giving up tropical oils for baking cookies and other desserts. Once again, the natural saturated fats were replaced with hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Later, of course, reams of research concluded that trans fats could cause all the problems I mentioned earlier. So CSPI promptly announced they’d made a grave mistake, took full responsibility for the countless heart attacks they’d caused, and disbanded.
Kidding! Of course that didn’t happen. After remaining quiet on the issue long enough for most reporters to forget CSPI’s role in promoting trans fats (roughly 15 minutes), CSPI jumped on the anti-trans-fat bandwagon. They pushed for laws to ban them. They sued restaurants for using them. That’s right … they sued restaurants for doing exactly what CSPI had demanded some years earlier. Even the IRS would be embarrassed by that kind of behavior.
The result of CSPI’s campaign against saturated fat is the kind of tasteless fried food I ate at Denny’s.
Vegetable oils that aren’t hydrogenated may not be as bad for you as the hydrogenated variety, but they’re not exactly good for you, either. They’re certainly not part of your natural diet; early humans didn’t have the technology or the desire to squeeze a jug of oil out of rapeseeds and soybeans. (They did squeeze the oil out of olives, and yes, olive oil is good for you.) Many vegetable oils become rancid at room temperature, and they’re high in Omega-6 fats, which can cause inflammation. If inflammation isn’t the actual cause of heart disease, it’s certainly an aggravating factor.
Meanwhile, tallow and lard – which are delicious, full of essential fatty acids, and raise your HDL – are still tagged with the “artery-clogging saturated fat!” label, perhaps for good. Unless Gary Taubes is appointed head of the FDA, I don’t think the restaurants could ever switch back without raising a firestorm among the nutrition “experts.”
I realize that most fried foods aren’t good for you anyway, but not for the reason the experts think. French fries are deep-fried potato starch. Fried chicken (or chicken-fried steak) is coated with corn starch or flour. I’m better off without the stuff.
And thanks to Michael Jacobson and CSPI, I won’t be tempted to order fried food again anytime soon. Maybe I should send the guy a thank-you letter.
But I want to smack him first.