Family recipe's dark secret takes its toll on the heart
Weekend!Food: In Season
For generations, the women in my family have been known for their pie crusts. 'How did you get it so crisp and flaky?' people often ask me. (It sounds like a line from a commercial, but really, they do.) Usually I just smile and say, 'I don't know, that's just how it came out.'
The truth is, we have a shameful secret. It's Crisco. Procter and Gamble began marketing Crisco in 1911. It was the first partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
By a simple chemical reconfiguration, liquid vegetable oil became a malleable solid that could be heated to very high temperatures without burning. It was easier to work with than butter, less prone than lard to off flavors, and cheaper than either. I'm sure my great-grandmother was thrilled.
Throughout the 20th century, manufacturers increasingly took advantage of the benefits of shortening in cakes, cookies and crackers. It also was used for deep frying in legions of restaurants. Only in the last years of the century did health concerns begin to arise.
'Manufacturers started using it, not because they were evil - it was just an unknown,' says Kimra Hawk, a dietitian at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. 'It was easier dealing with a solid than a liquid. They also found that it would make superior products.' Crispy foods stayed crisper, and stayed that way longer - and for a lower price, too.
Convenience food takes toll
However, evidence began to mount that trans fatty acids, the type of fat found in shortening, increased the likelihood of heart disease.
And unlike many other food/health claims (Is salt good or bad? Does alcohol poison or save lives? Will eggs clog your arteries or strengthen them?), it now is widely accepted that trans fat raises the levels of bad cholesterol in your body, and also decreases the levels of beneficial cholesterol.
Researchers have found that removing trans fat from the industrial food supply could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks and deaths caused by heart disease every year.
That is why, in 2006, the city of New York passed a law banning trans fat in restaurant cooking, and why many other municipalities and counties are considering similar measures. Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito recently made such a proposal, although its future is uncertain.
Public awareness of the dangers of trans fat is way up, and many manufacturers and restaurants already are phasing it out. Lay's Potato Chips, for instance, now are fried in sunflower oil and sport a big yellow sunflower on their bag.
Dietitian Hawk has some words of warning about such packaging. 'People see 'trans fat free' and they think it's a healthy food,' she says, 'It's still a deep-fried potato.'
There are other labeling tricks of which to be wary. The government requires packaged food containing trans fat to list the amount, in grams, on the label, along with other nutritional information.
However, if a product contains less than half a gram of trans fat, the manufacturer can legally label it 'zero trans fat.' By eating several servings of a so-called 'zero trans fat' snack, you inadvertently could consume more than your recommended maximum of 2 grams per day.
Margarine can load it on
Most Americans eat about 6 grams of trans fat a day, Hawk says. A small amount occurs naturally in dairy and meat products, she says. The largest amount - about 40 percent - comes from baked goods such as cakes, cookies and bread.
Margarine is second, at 17 percent. If you're choosing margarine over butter to reduce your cholesterol, make sure you choose the right brand. Margarines can contain anywhere from zero to 2.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
Read the label, Hawk says. If you see 'partially hydrogenated vegetable oil' or 'partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening' near the top of the list of ingredients, you can bet on a lot of trans fat. If this is near the bottom of the list, the amount of trans fat may be small.
Also, be careful with products that have been reformulated to reduce trans fat. Sometimes, Hawk says, 'they take out one bad fat and put another bad fat in. … You haven't accomplished anything.'
By my calculation, a slice of my grandmother's apple pie would have contained 3 grams of trans fat. But this year, Crisco changed its formula. Soybean oil now is the main ingredient, with various partially hydrogenated oils farther down the list. The label reads 'zero trans fat.'
I did a taste test comparing old Crisco, new Crisco and Spectrum, which is made entirely from pressed organic palm oil. The Spectrum pie crust was OK, but it tasted a bit stale even fresh from the oven, and it wasn't very flaky.
The new Crisco was slightly better, but I'm sorry to say that the new formula simply doesn't make as good a crust as the old one.
My descendants will have to find some other claim to fame.