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Butter Wins Protracted War with Parkay and its Trans Fatso Henchfoods

by Dave Cathey Published: November 7, 2013
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The war between butter and Parkay is finally over and butter wins on a technical knockout bestowed by the FDA, which today announced partially hydrogenated fats are unsafe. The use of trans fats in restaurants and food products have slimmed substantially in the past decade, which is good news considering the substantial role they play in promoting heart disease over the past century.

Neither Crisco nor margarine will disappear from grocery store shelves tomorrow, but each are looking for good seats on the ferry to the Island of Misfit cooking ingredients where cyclamate, lead acetate, and Olestra live.

Trans fats are now the culinary equivalent of an F-Bomb dropped in a room full of Kindergartners, but hydrogenation was actually developed by a Nobel laureate scientist who hailed from the cradle of culinary arts. His name was Paul Sabatier, and his process for adding small amounts of hydrogen to organic substances to solidify them was just one of many advances he made that eventually led to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1913.

Sabatier developed the hydrogenation process with vapor in mind, but others took his principles and applied them to liquids, namely oils. In 1911, the Proctor & Gamble Company decided to apply the chemistry to cottonseed oil and within two years, Crisco sprang to life with all the subtlety of Frankenstein’s monster.

So, the folks at Proctor and Gamble rolled out a marketing campaign the likes of which only Apple has ever conceived by giving away free cookbooks extolling the virtue and convenience of the laboratory-born Crisco product. By 1920, Crisco had stormed into grandma’s pie crusts, biscuits and cast-iron skillets. Suddenly, American comfort food from biscuits and gravy to fried chicken was founded on a substance that picked up the petty pace for all we lighted fools on the path to dusty death with little sound and no fury.

If partially hydrogenated oils were dangerous, nobody was in a hurry to find out.  It was an “advancement” that pushed forward a number of industries while saving the homemaker money, too.

No matter how many wise old sages remind us that things that appear to good to be true do so because they are, it would take another three and half decades before anyone mentioned trans fats might not be good for us. In fact, there was some scientific research hinting margarine might be better for us than butter. This despite some indication in the early 1960s trans fats might not be so good for our tickers.

Since that info went ignored for a good three decades, homemakers of the 1960s switched to hydrogenated vegetable shortening and margarine. Then along came the decade of the microwave, Chef Boyardee, Hamburger Helper and instant potatoes. For a little while, kitchen stars were chemists rather than chefs.

I can attest because I was raised in a card-carrying margarine family. It was, after all, much cheaper than real butter and tasted enough like it to justify its purchase so we could save money for newfangled electronic devices like an eight-track player, video cassette recorder and Walkman. As the world stared in confusion at a Rubik’s Cube, demanded its MTV or invested in junk bonds, no one had time to worry about whether the best fried chicken and pie crusts ever were killing us.

They were.

But hey, humankind’s propensity to self-destruct is nothing new. See cigarettes, noodling, and grown men and women partaking in the exploitation of a little girl whose nickname combines the name of one cartoon bear with the favorite snack of another.

In the end, the end of trans fats in our daily diet will be a positive move, but like I mentioned before, be prepared for protracted resolution and beware of Frankenstein’s bride, because hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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