Never trust a cow

So, trans fats. Invented by humans…unheard of in the natural world…a “biological novelty” (to quote our dietary bellyacher-in-chief, Michael Pollan). Is it true?

No. The number one “fact” we hear about trans fats — that they’re entirely synthetic, lab-created compounds — is false. The arch conspirators in the global trans fat cabal are actually cows. Trans fats are, and always have been, present in cow’s milk. About 5% of the fatty acids present in milk are trans fats, which means about 5% of the fat in beef is trans fat — which means up to a third of the trans fat human beings currently consume is naturally occurring trans fat.

Why do cows (as well as other ruminants like sheep, goats, buffalo, llamas, deer, wildebeest and giraffes) produce trans fats? Unknown. What role might trans fats play in animal metabolism? Unknown. Do the trans fats cows make act differently in the body than man-made trans fats? Again, unknown.

I bring this up not to imply that trans fats are good for us (or that cows may be receiving residuals from Procter & Gamble), but only to point out that there is so much that’s unknown about them. And really, about fats in general. That’s evident in the see-saw research we see about fat: fat is bad for you. No wait, fat is good for you. No no hang on, some fats are good for you and some fats are bad for you. Or actually I should qualify that: some good fats are bad for you some of the time, and other bad fats are actually very good for you other parts of the time.

Add it all up and you get lots and lots of very understandable confusion, plus the big sign I saw atop an organic meat purveyor’s stand at my farmer’s market this past Saturday: “Healthful Lard!” it shouted in big capital letters. Imagine what the reaction would have been to that even two years ago.

Are trans fats really any worse for you than other fats? Lately, and only very lately, some fairly definitive evidence (from the Nurse’s Health Study, or NHS) has come along that they are. That to me is neither here nor there, since I’ve never consumed much in the way of trans fats, nor do I intend to do so. However it makes no sense, to my way of thinking, to be irrationally afraid of them either. A lot of what we eat is potentially harmful to us in large enough quantities (table salt springs to mind). Following the time-honored path of moderation in all things, I believe, is the surest road to both health and happiness.

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