07/20/2007 02:05 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Death of Real Food: Monsanto and the Elimination of Trans Fats

The gauntlet is down, the oven mitts are off, the pork confit's been eaten and the sweet butter is gone. Perhaps, for good.

I have long bemoaned the banning of trans fats, but not for the obvious reasons: not because I believe that the government should take the role of Educator rather than Decider, and put responsibility into the public's hands, lest we all turn into pod people who are comfortable having others make choices for us. Not because I believe that basic classes in nutrition should be a requirement in all public schools, at the Federal level. (If prayer can make it onto the agenda, how come required nutritional guidance can't?) Not because I believe that artificial trans fats should be stricken on the basis that they are not foods, but are assembled in laboratories. Instead, I have bewailed the banning of trans fats because, in an effort to replace cheap cooking oils with ones that meet new standards and guidelines, the ban has occurred concomitant to a strategic plan by the engineered food and seed industry -- led by Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Monsanto -- to invent newer, better, and more acceptable industrial cooking oils without partial hydrogenation, containing zero trans fats, and therefore suitable in the eyes of politicians and shareholders alike.

What has been absent from the debate surrounding artificial trans fat-free products is that many of them may be far more dangerous than trans fat themselves are thought to be: Cargill"s specialty trans fat-free canola seed has been engineered using Monsanto's Roundup Ready™ technology, which renders seeds herbicide-resistant. Archer Daniels Midland, who will be processing Monsanto's Vistive ™ trans fat-free soybean seed for the Kellogg Corporation, among others, is also engineered with the Roundup Ready™ trait. In a press release dated January 31, 2005, Cargill announced that their seed would be ready for commercial growing "as early as 2007." Archer Daniels Midland, in a press release dated January 2006, expected to grow 40,000 acres of Vistive ™ trans fat-free soybean seeds for crushing shortly thereafter. In the first quarter of 2006, Monsanto reported a 634 million dollar gross profit, with the bulk appearing in seeds and genomics, compared to a 491 million dollar gross profit in the first quarter of 2005.

Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but if trans fat-banning cities were really so desperately worried about our collective heart conditions and overall health, wouldn't it be better, cheaper, safer, and far more delicious for restaurants and food manufacturers to be required to use naturally-occurring fats in moderation rather than industrially-produced ones bent on end-of-fiscal-year results? Wouldn't it be prudent for Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Monsanto to, in the interest of public disclosure and safety, let consumers know that what we are buying has been bred and/or treated with a substance bearing no small connection to the herbicide that many of us will be using in the coming weeks to kill poison ivy? Shouldn't the FDA demand a clear labeling of trans fat-free alternatives as having been produced with Roundup Ready™?

Therein lies the rub. Put aside this so-called concern for heart health for just a second: the efficacy of food -- real food versus engineered food created by industrial agribusiness -- is in fact what this brouhaha is all about. The cities of New York, Chicago, and all others who are about to jump on the trans fat bandwagon are about as concerned for their resident's heart health as President Bush has honestly found Jesus. (Said another way: if Mayor Bloomberg's office was truly worried about the quality of what New York City residents were eating, dirty water hot dog stands would have gone the way of the Edsel a very long time ago.)

Far beyond the confines of the professional kitchen, the banning of trans fats is a consumer problem, as most food-related issues invariably are: on now-federally mandated nutritional labels, it is impossible to tell the difference between artificial trans fats (the now-banned, engineered gunk soon to be replaced with Roundup Ready™-laced trans fat-free artificial gunk) and natural trans fats (the kind found in small amounts in that turkey burger you ate last night, or in the $7 a pound Plugra Butter that you lovingly spread on that pungent slice of 27-grain sourdough you bought at Whole Foods). Trans fats occur, in their natural form, in virtually everything from that skinless, boneless chicken breast you poached today to that strip of applewood-smoked bacon you fried up with your eggs on Sunday morning; trans fats are in that sliver of velvet-smooth triple-crème Brie you sampled at your local cheese shop. That salty-sweet negamaki you ordered at your favorite sushi bar? More trans fats. The falling-off-the-bone tender baby back ribs you ordered at that new barbecue joint? More trans fats. The donut you picked up on the way to the office? More trans fats.

If the melting iceberg under the tip of this culinary conflagration goes beyond Monsanto's development of herbicide-resistant trans fat-free cooking and baking oils to include the wholesale removal of trans fats from the American diet, we should cease all pork and poultry production; limit all cheese production to controllable processed cheese food; limit dairy farms to the production of skim milk; and strictly guard against the importing of French, Italian, Spanish, Asian, and English food products. Of course, we would also have to shut down the beef industry.

There are two simple answers to this dangerous, pocket-lining poser: first, teach all Americans what our neighbors around the world have already learned when it comes to food -- the joys of moderation. Second, re-introduce to the American diet a natural ingredient that's as old as time itself. It's delicious and very little of it goes a long way. It's got great mouth feel. When melted, it creates an instant sauce about which Brillat-Savarin waxed rhapsodic. It can be frozen, salted, spiced, rolled in herbs, or had plain. You can bake, fry, roast, and poach with and in it.

It's called butter.