In â€œFear of Frying,â€ David Schleifer gives us, in the words of his subtitle, â€œa brief history of trans fats,â€ and itâ€™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 didnâ€™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 didnâ€™t â€œdeny the good science, buy some bad science, and try to avoid regulation.â€ What they did â€“ despite the difficulties and costs involved â€“ 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. Whatâ€™s the next big thing? Omega-3s fats, essential nutritionally but destroyed by hydrogenation. But it probably wonâ€™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 thatâ€™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 â€“ or one of them â€“ of a Time magazine piece this week on â€œHow the World Eats.â€