February 5, 2003

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Hydrogenated economy

EARLY IN OUR Chicago interregnum, from 1985 to 1991, we ate fairly often at a Wrigleyville trattoria called Leona's. We could walk there, it didn't cost much, the atmospherics were good, and the pizza and pasta were OK. Bonus: at the end of every meal, the server would bring a plate of complimentary cookies. We were given to understand that these were made from vegetable shortening, so if we found them to be somewhat less tasty than cookies made from butter, we consoled ourselves with the belief that they were better for us. Of course they weren't; they were much, much worse, since vegetable shortening, whether Crisco or margarine, is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and that is one of the most noxious substances ever introduced into the American diet. Fortunately, we ended up leaving the city.

My sister-in-law wrote from Minneapolis the other day with the news that her teenage daughter finds their joint trips to the supermarket aggravating. Instead of simply filling the cart with "teen food" – daughter's preference – my sister-in-law, a deadly foe of trans fats, insists on reading the labels, which means that almost everything gets thrown back, even at the risk of teen disapproval.

"Our cupboards do not look like her friends' cupboards," she wrote to me. "We're weird."

They are weird in large part because it has come to their attention, despite gazillions of dollars of advertising and media manipulation, that they live in a world of trans fats. They live in a world in which trans fats are a part of virtually every processed food that's cool and desirable – and no one is more keenly aware of what is cool and desirable than teenagers. They – we all – live in a world in which much of our food is produced by huge conglomerates that are constantly seeking to cut costs (partially hydrogenated vegetable oil began as means of transforming surplusage into a cheap substitute for butter – hence Leona's "complimentary" cookies) and pump up demand without regard to such "externalities" as whether the consumers who provide all the profit are lethally stuffing themselves with dreck.

It is clear that the trans-fat industry, like the tobacco industry, regards teenagers as a key demographic to be captured, or maybe I mean enslaved. Teenagers are dying to be independent and terrified of seeming different – and they are always hungry. At the same time, they are plastic and eager to learn, and who will teach them to be something other than docile consumers? Who will teach them to cook for themselves and think for themselves, to be people instead of butterballs? Big business? Fat chance. Us? It can be done.

Paul Reidinger

paulr@sfbg.com