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the know-it-all

How Is a Trans Fat Like Rat Poo? (Answer: Not Much)

City health officials apparently consider trans fats — those peskily delicious heart-disease instigators Bloomberg's goons want to eradicate from New York's menus — in the "same category as food spoiled by poor refrigeration or rodent droppings," according to an AP story earlier this week. Really? They're that bad? How? And what exactly is a trans fat, anyway?

Trans-fatty acids are artificial fats made by adding hydrogen gas to liquid vegetable oil, creating a dense, creamy ooze like Crisco. Processed-food manufacturers started using them with gusto about twenty years ago, when they discovered that the goo prolonged shelf life (old crackers = yummy!) and was cheaper than natural animal fats, or so-called saturated fats. (Plus, they taste really good.) You can find them in everything from Oreos to Ritz crackers to microwave popcorn, which, thanks to an FDA rule that became effective on the first of this year, now list the evil fats on their labels.

Saturated fats are bad, but trans fats are worse because they raise bad-cholesterol levels while also depleting good cholesterol, which helps protect against heart disease. Also, because of their relative glopiness, they are more likely to clog the arteries that feed blood to the heart and brain. (Imagine pouring bacon fat down the drain. Now imagine your arteries are that drain.)

The city Health Department doesn't recall ever likening eating trans fats to eating spoiled food or rodent droppings, but officials say they must simply have meant that if the stuff were outlawed, violators would be subject to the same fines as those who serve contaminated eats. For the record, though, consuming rodent waste can lead to contracting the deadly hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which can look like the flu but soon clog your lungs with thick fluid. And the effects of eating rotten food can run the gamut from a nasty taste in your mouth to the runs to truly serious illnesses like listeriosis and salmonella.

Next to that, a little artery-clogging doesn't sound so bad.

Hope Reeves

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