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Barbara Whelehan writes Boomer Bucks for Bankrate.comTrans fats: your health and your wallet

The typical baby boomer's objective: Lead a healthy and prosperous life, keeping illness at bay until the very end. The very end, of course, is way off in the distant future.

Illness is a major inconvenience since it can disrupt our physical bodies, not to mention our financial well-being. So ideally, we want ready access to information that will enable us to make wise choices about important things such as what we eat. Right?

Yet, it appears there are ignominious forces in our society that would rather keep us in the dark about what we're eating. I'm referring to the latest controversy on trans fats.

In late September, New York City's health department proposed banning harmful trans fatty acids altogether from the Big Apple's 24,000-plus restaurants. This move sparked a variety of reactions, ranging from outrage of the Orwellian tactics of "food police" to support from nutritionists and health-care workers.

Chicago is considering an ordinance that may restrict the use of trans fats in fast-food restaurants. The Windy City's concern about the public's health is somewhat ironic, considering people are still allowed to smoke in restaurants there.

Fatty threats
Last week, State Sen. Ellen Karcher of New Jersey announced plans to introduce legislation that would ban trans fats from the Garden State's restaurants. The day after she declared her intentions, she received numerous threats from angry callers, prompting her to close her office early on Friday.

Here's a weird quote from the president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association published in an Associated Press report of that incident: "We're very distressed that once again the (restaurant) industry and the public are facing an encroachment on their rights," said Deborah Dowdell in response to Karcher's proposed legislation.

Excuse me? How is the public facing an encroachment on its rights? Does Dowdell mean our right to indulge in substances that are known to be harmful? Oh, no -- she must be referring to our right to be blissfully ignorant of the amount of trans fats we ingest when we dine out.

Obviously she's not looking out for the interests of consumers, but for those of the restaurant industry, which relies on trans fats, she says. "To tell them that they can't use trans fats anymore has costly ramifications." But what about the costly ramifications to consumers who eat food prepared with trans fats?

I want to know. Don't you?
I'll admit that I'm a royal pain, from the perspective of waiters (and quite possibly lunch companions), because on the rare occasion when I do dine out, I often make a point of asking the waiter what types of oils are used to cook the food.

"Does this restaurant use trans fats?" I asked a waiter of a seafood restaurant recently.

"We use olive oil and vegetable oils," he replied pleasantly.

"Yes, but are the vegetable oils partially hydrogenated?" I pressed.

"I don't know. That's a good question," he said, betraying no hostility whatsoever, though I caught him shooting me a dark look after he had walked away.

He later came back to let me know that the restaurant does use partially hydrogenated soybean oil in the preparation of its dinner rolls. I wondered if the cook indignantly slathered the stuff all over my salmon entree, too.

I hardly ever go out to eat anymore. Why? Because most restaurants cook with partially hydrogenated oils, and I don't like the idea of compromising my health to support restaurateurs. Also, I don't like paying a huge premium for (ill) prepared foods when I could be enjoying nutritious meals at home -- at a fraction of the cost. Dining out on a regular basis can add up to big bucks. Besides, my husband does all the cooking in our household, so why should I want to go out?

The latest food fright
Some might shrug off the trans-fat controversy as the latest scientific scare in the food industry, which seems to be a magnet for contradictory studies. Over the years, we've seen so much flip-flopping about what's good and what's bad for us. Eggs were demonized for decades because of their cholesterol content, and they were widely believed to cause heart disease. Yet in recent years they've been touted as an excellent source of protein, a nutritious food packed with important vitamins and minerals.

A few decades ago, partially hydrogenated oils were the solution to the perceived problem of the overuse of animal lard in food preparation. The process of adding hydrogen to liquid oils turns them into solid fats. Margarine was supposed to be the healthy alternative to butter, but now it's disdained for its trans fat content. It turns out butter would have been better, after all.

The restaurant industry is partial to trans fats because they are widely available, have a longer shelf life than other oils that tend to go rancid, are inexpensive and offer a taste to which the public has grown accustomed.

In a Wall Street Journal commentary titled "America, supersize at your own peril," Mary Enig, president of the Maryland Nutritionists Association, recently wrote, "Trans fats inhibit cell membrane function, interfere with the enzyme systems the body needs to eliminate carcinogens and toxins (thus contributing to cancer), inhibit insulin receptors (causing Type 2 diabetes) and decrease hormone production (leading to infertility)."

Next: "So going forward, we should go backward"
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