I can’t believe it’s not (legal) butter

by Walter Olson on March 9, 2007

“In a twist of science, the law and what some call trans-fat hysteria, [New York City] wholesale bakers are being forced to substitute processed fats like palm oil and margarine for good old-fashioned butter because of the small amounts of natural trans fat butter contains.” (Kim Severson, “Trans Fat Fight Claims Butter as a Victim”, New York Times, Mar. 7). More: Feb. 15, 2005; Jun. 14, Jul. 30, Sept. 27, Oct. 16, Dec. 5, Dec. 10, 2006; Mar. 3, 2007.

{ 8 comments }

1 EarlWer 03.09.07 at 1:25 am

On a related note: Here in Quebec, yellow margarine is illegal. Last November the government seized a shipment of yellow margarine.
http://www.canada.com/montreal/montrealgazette/news/story.html?id=5951efe5-66da-46fd-a4d3-1e3a48d513bc

2 marie-christine 03.09.07 at 4:23 am

palm oil is not any better as it is a saturated fat plus is contributing to the loss of habitat for orangutans in indonesia and sumatra.

3 Amsterdamsky 03.09.07 at 5:14 am

“Some researchers believe that the trans fat that occurs naturally in butter, meat, milk and cheese might actually be healthy. ”

Total bullshit. Transfats occur by mishandling oils and/or overheating them. I suppose dosing them with radiation might also work. We are now clearly moving away from science and into bizzarolegalworld.

4 bob montgomery 03.09.07 at 11:40 am

Transfats occur by mishandling oils and/or overheating them.

Care to explain? That isn’t true.

I love this site, but this post is fairly misleading, I think – you wrote that bakers are being “forced” to stop using butter, implying that it was an unintended effect of the law. But actually, the bakers are eliminating butter to satisfy a customer: Starbucks.

5 markm 03.09.07 at 12:09 pm

Amster…, From Wikipedia:
“Chemically, trans fats are made of the same building blocks as non-trans fats, but have a different shape. In trans fat molecules, the double bonds between carbon atoms (characteristic of all unsaturated fats) are in the trans rather than the cis configuration, resulting in a straighter, rather than kinked, shape. As a result, trans fats are less fluid and have a higher melting point than the corresponding cis fats.”

So it’s a chemical configuration that can occur naturally, but has often been deliberately created in processing. I suspect that our systems are set up to handle the natural ones as well as they handle other animal fats, not that anyone has tested this. We’ve been crudely cooking meat over a campfire for long enought that we probably also evolved the capability of metabolizing the trans-fats that occur by overheating animal cis-fat until it wriggles into a new shape.

The artificially created ones are different. They start with unsaturated vegetable fats (oils) rather than saturated animal fats. The difference here is the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the side of the chains of carbon atoms; saturated = every possible site filled, mono-unsaturated = one site left unfilled, polyunsaturated = more than one open site. Somehow unsaturated is healthier – in the natural substances. Natural unsaturated fats also have lower melting points (which is why they’re called oils – they’re liquids at room temperature) and less tolerance for heat than the saturated ones.

To make margarine from vegetable oil, they have to raise the melting point so it stays solid. With frying oil, the point isn’t to raise the melting point, but to reduce evaporation and make it hold up better in prolonged heat, but the chemical fixes available are just about the same. They can add hydrogen atoms – but that moves it closer to the allegedly unhealthy “saturated” animal fats, so you can’t sell your fully hydrogenated veggie oil as a “healthy” alternative. Or you can induce it to switch to the trans shape, which can get you the melting point of a fully saturated fat without being quite fully saturated. So by the crude measure of “saturated = unhealthy” scientists once espoused, the trans-margarine was supposed to be healthier.

The trouble is, they were creating substances never found in nature. Little changes like this can dramatically affect how the fat interacts with enzymes intended to break it down, or to re-process it for transport through the bloodstream and then for storage in fat cells. It’s no surprise to me that the result was unhealthier than the worst natural fats.

6 Zubon 03.09.07 at 12:37 pm

This being Overlawyered, who wants to place bets on when we see the first lawsuit claiming that trans-fats in butter are not “natural” because butter is an artificial substance? Butter churns are not naturally occurring objects.

7 William Nuesslein 03.10.07 at 12:21 pm

Thanks to markm for the learned discussion of fats.

But I found at http://www.nycclash.com/TransFatTestimony.html
that “According to The National Academy of Sciences, the DHHS, the National Heart Lung & Blood Institute, and even the FDA, “transfats are on a par with saturated fats.” No better, no worse.”

It is a shame that Mayor Bloomberg is a food nut.

8 Arondo Holmes 03.10.07 at 4:08 pm

There is many miconceptions about palm oil there are two sourses of oil the fruit oil and the kernel “seed” oil the seed oil is high in saturated fat but not the fruit oil the sarurated fat content is often sited by apponents of the wide spead use of the healthy oil from palm.See http://www.americanpalmoil.com/environmental.html and then decide

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