Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
Diane Gordon
Robert Rotondo
Dan Stefik
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Emanuel Pordes
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
David Solway
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward





In 1910, when Proctor and Gamble put Crisco on the market, it was the dawn of the new age of ‘Frankenfood.’ A white, greasy substance intended to replace lard, Crisco was the first chemically altered vegetable oil. Not only was Crisco ‘refined’ with a petroleum based chemical called hexane, it was also treated to give it the consistency of lard. Touted as a healthier product than lard, which is made of solid animal fat, the cans of Crisco were wrapped in white paper to impress the consumer with its ‘purity.’ As we now know, chemically processed vegetable oil is very unhealthy stuff.

Before the dawn of corporate consumables, food and its sources had long been woven tightly into the fabric of culture. Since antiquity, vegetable oils in particular have been prized for not only cooking, but a variety of uses such as lamp oil, ink, skin emollients and medicine. In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena’s gift of an olive branch pleased Zeus so much that he named the great city of Athens after her. In A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Ali Baba opens the cavern of riches with “Open Sesame!,” an expression which alludes to the automatic popping of ripe sesame seeds, one of the world’s oldest foods.

The esteem which certain cultures accord to these ancient foodstuffs remains high -- and for all the right reasons. Olive oil, which Homer called “Liquid Gold,” is easily one of the healthiest fats. By lowering cholesterol, it can help prevent cardiovascular disease as well as cancer. Sesame oil has similar properties and its high content of vitamin E supports healthy skin and healing. The much-touted Mediterranean diet includes copious amounts of olive oil. As ‘fat’ has become the dietary dirty word in modern society, the Greeks, per capita, consume a staggering 20 liters of it per annum and boast the lowest incidence of heart attack in Europe. Fact: consuming fat is not necessarily bad for you and, depending on your diet guru, should comprise from ten to thirty percent of the your daily calorie intake.

Fats and oils form one of the three types of calories we consume, along with carbohydrates and protein. They are necessary for the production of hormones, healthy nerves and cell membranes, as well as the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. A person who doesn’t get enough fat in his or her diet will have brittle hair and nails, as well as dry skin. Despite this, a quick stroll down an aisle in a grocery store will reveal many products that boast either low or no fat. We need fat, but some fats are very bad for us in many ways. Certain fats contribute to cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and a host of other ailments. Other fats contribute greatly to our health and well-being. To argue that animal fat is bad and vegetable fat is good for you is both simplistic and inaccurate.

There are three kinds of fat. Saturated fats generally come from animals while unsaturated derive from mostly vegetable sources. Palm and coconut oil, for example, are both considered saturated fat. Most vegetable oils have a small amount of saturated fat. Unsaturated fats are either monounsaturated – the type found in olive, peanut and avocado oils – or polyunsaturated, which are found in safflower, corn, soybean and sunflower oils. Both types produce carcinogens when overheated during the cooking process.

The word ‘saturated’ refers to the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the fat molecules, but you don’t have to know the chemical structure of saturated and unsaturated fat to observe the essential difference between the two: at room temperature, saturated fats are solid while unsaturated fats are liquid, which is why saturated fats are the main suspects when arteries clog up. Unsaturated, saturated and trans fat can be described respectively as the good, the not-so-good, and the ugly. Trans fat is unsaturated fat chemically treated (hydrogenated) to mimic saturated fat.

Simply put, vegetable oils are healthier to consume than fats that come from meat and dairy products. To be sure, this remains a highly debated subject, but the research speaks for itself when scientists compare cancer and heart disease rates around the world. The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health funded a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology (2004) that found a strong link between the high consumption of animal products and lymphoma. Statistics are the strongest argument for the relationship between high levels of meat consumption and many diseases. Countries with low rates of meat consumption in Latin America and Asia show far lower rates of cancer and heart disease than meat consuming North America and Europe. The fresh fruit, vegetable and seafood consuming Greeks and southern Italians are exceptions to these trends.

But before the unsuspecting consumer decides to treat himself to a 6-pack of the green stuff (olive oil), he should note that there are glaring and alarming differences among the many commercially available vegetable oils. To wit: chemically refined vegetable oil, labelled as trans fat or hydrogenated oil, is even worse than saturated fat in meat.

Before the advent of commercially processed food at the beginning of the 20th century, people obtained their vegetable oil from the simple process of mechanical extraction where the oil was squeezed or pressed out of the plant, nut or seed. When corporations began to mass produce vegetable oils, they used heat and chemical extraction with flammable and toxic chemicals, such as hexane, a petroleum product, to ‘purify’ it. The result is an oil that is clear, odorless and devoid of nutritional content, the kind (Mazola, canola) one usually encounters in the supermarket. These chemically processed oils, which are more vulnerable to rancidity than unrefined oils, are not obliged to betray their bastard origins on their labels. The healthier oils are always labelled ‘unrefined’, ‘cold pressed – 1st pressing’, and have a rich color, scent and taste.

Although refined vegetable oils cannot compete with naturally produced, unrefined oils, the trans fat in processed food is even worse. Foods that contain trans fat, also called ‘hydrogenated vegetable oil,’ are probably the worst thing one can possibly eat. Hydrogenation causes liquid vegetable oil to become partially solid, giving it a longer shelf life than other oil. It is found in margarines, cake mixes, commercial baked goods and fast food such as French fries. Extensive research by Dr. Mary G. Enig argues for the strong correlation between the consumption of trans fat and heart disease. Trans fat has also been shown to promote Type II (adult-onset) diabetes and increasing insulin resistance in the blood. The worst offender was Crisco, the vegetable shorting put on the market in 1910 by Proctor and Gamble. Under growing pressure from consumers to eliminate trans fat, the company came out with a new Crisco in 2004.

So how does one sort out healthy food from the bad these days? If your shopping cart contains too many boxes and packages, you’re probably eating too much trans fat, as it is present in most processed foods. Better to eat lots of fruit, vegetables and grains that are grown without herbicides and pesticides and leave the trans fat to grease your door hinges.




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