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The Latest Bugaboo: Trans Fat

As a result, chicken strips and other fried chicken products at Wendy’s now have no trans fats. The French fries, however, still have a small amount produced as part of the par frying process at the manufacturer, which Wendy’s says it is working to eliminate.

The new oil is a blend of corn and soybean oils and is comparably priced and handled similarly to other oils.

The announcement came after a two-year process during which Wendy’s removed trans fats from other items such as buns and salad dressings.

This process follows a long process in which food manufacturers, now required to list trans fats on the label, have been looking to reconstitute recipes and processes in order to avoid the depressing effect on sales they anticipate by listing trans fats on their label.

The evidence indicates trans fat is a very bad thing for humans, but, as the Harvard School of Public Health points out:

When saturated fat was fingered as a contributor to high cholesterol, companies such as McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts switched from beef tallow to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil for frying French fries and donuts.

At the time, switching from butter or lard — both full of saturated fat — to a product made from healthy vegetable oil seemed to make sense.

This is all a poignant reminder of the danger of a little knowledge. The quote is alluding to the fact that these chains did not use trans fat until urged to make a switch by the same public health advocates who now urge a switch again.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with changing your mind in the face of new knowledge, but it points to two common difficulties in analyzing all the health advice on food.

First, a lot depends on what you replace something with. You can identify that skydiving is dangerous — or that it is more dangerous than normal life, which puts the activity outside the mean. But just because we can identify that something, say saturated fat, is bad, it is not clear that its replacement in the diet will be an improvement.

Second, the unknown about all foods is far greater than the known. Our research has barely scratched the surface of the implications of food. On the last link to the Harvard page, did you catch this side bar?

COCONUT AND PALM OILS. These solid vegetable oils were more widely used in prepared food until 1988, when worries (largely unfounded) that they were more detrimental than other high-saturated-fat oils caused food companies to replace them with hydrogenated oils made from soy, corn, sunflower, and rapeseed. While they are less harmful than fats high in trans fats, they are still more conducive to heart disease than vegetable oils rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Recent evidence indicates that coconut oil strongly increases HDL cholesterol, which may make it a good choice when a bit of hard fat is needed.

Yet coconuts are still restricted from the produce industry’s 5-a-Day program — does that make sense?

To some extent, we jump from hysteria to hysteria — from horrid fear of saturated fats to horrid fear of trans fat — without a lot of understanding.

There is science here, but there also is a lot of fear, a lot of politics and a lot of marketing.

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