Who’s afraid of trans fats?

In “Fear of Frying,” David Schleifer gives us, in the words of his subtitle, “a brief history of trans fats,” and it’s a fascinating read. Trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils: attaching more hydrogen atoms to the oily backbone turns liquids into solids. First introduced at the turn of the century, they were all the rage by the 1960s because they were easier to use (e.g., in deep frying) and didn’t go rancid quite as quickly, but also because of (never fully substantiated) hype about how bad saturated fats were for you.

Some fifteen years ago, however, studies started to associate them with heart disease, diabetes and infertility. They have recently been banned from New York City restaurants. But unlike big tobacco, big food didn’t “deny the good science, buy some bad science, and try to avoid regulation.” What they did – despite the difficulties and costs involved – is jump on alternatives to trans fats, even before consumers started to change their minds in large numbers. In effect, they fostered perceptions of risk to drum up demand for a product that addressed that risk: value adding and niche marketing through fear. What’s the next big thing? Omega-3s fats, essential nutritionally but destroyed by hydrogenation. But it probably won’t be long before something bad is found out about them too and we all get onto the next bandwagon.

All very scary, but how is this relevant to the subject matter of this blog? Well, each of these shifts in consumer demand required new technologies, including new crop varieties. So, for example, the National Sunflower Association and the United Soybean Board, among others, developed cultivars whose oil does not need partial hydrogenation. But these are liquid, and difficult to use in baked goods, so palm oil is increasingly used, apparently. And Monsanto is projecting unveiling an enhanced omega-3 soybean by 2012.

Ok, so that’s one way to look at the role of agricultural diversity. Another is that you should stay away from processed foods and try to base your diet on a diversity of fresh ingredients, traditionally prepared. Which, by sheer coincidence, is the subject – or one of them – of a Time magazine piece this week on “How the World Eats.”

Skimmed milk cow

A New Zealand biotech company has identified a pretty special mutation in a Friesian cow called Marge. Marge

produces a normal level of protein in her milk but substantially less fat, and the fat she does produce has much more unsaturated fat. She also produces milk with very high levels of omega3 oils.

The trait is heritable, and a commercial herd producing milk that is healthier and butter that is spreadable right out of the fridge is expected to be ready by 2011. The boffins at ViaLactia are looking for the gene involved.