Trans fats, a classic straw man (?)

I’m not really a conspiracy guy. In fact, I hate Conspiracy Guy. And I also hate Anti-Corporation Guy. But this trans fat thing has been irritating me for a while now, and I needed to get this off my chest.

Are you like me, sitting around all day thinking about the marketing of snack foods? Well has it ever occurred to you that these so-called “trans fats” that (suddenly) disappeared from all of our snack foods never really existed in the first place?

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a quick refresher: A few years ago (I’d say about 2005), we realized that there was something called “trans fats”  in our packaged foods like potato chips and the like. So far as I, an average consumer, could tell, it was never really explained why this was bad, but since it had fats in the name, we just assumed it was.

No offense.

And, by a sudden miracle, within days it became virtually impossible to find anything containing trans fats*. Within minutes, Lays, Doritos, Cheetos and every other chip purveyor in the world was running ads boasting that its foods were trans fat free! It was a miracle! (If you care, here’s an extremely confusing and contradictory Wikipedia article on trans fats).

*Author invokes Hyperbolic License.

And we all just accepted this because scientists supposedly said trans fats existed, and were bad, which shows a tenuous grasp on both the concept and history of science. For thousands of years, science has been basically continually proving itself wrong. That’s kind of the whole idea behind it. And especially in matters of food and health, science has basically shown that, beyond “eat your vegetables,” it really doesn’t know anything. Every five years or so, we get a new ruling on whether eggs are part of a balanced breakfast.

What I think we’ve seen here is a classic straw-man argument by the collective snack makers of the world.

1. Invent something that sounds bad.

2. Say it has been removed from your product.

3. Convince public that potato chips are somehow healthy now.

If the food at McDonald's doesn't have trans fat, then what does?

This is on the same level of genius as New Coke and is kind of the same thing. In 1985, Coca-Cola re-invented its sacred formula with a sweeter version that basically tasted more like Pepsi, which at the time was running the Pepsi challenge, a fair but ultimately misleading* ad campaign in which regular people did a blind taste test to decide whether they like Coke or Pepsi better.

*I read this, I think, in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but the reason Pepsi won the taste tests all the time is that Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, thus will naturally have a greater appeal on a one-sip basis. But the test did not represent the way people actually consume pop, which is generally in 12-ounce doses, over a 10-20 minute period.

The funny thing was, when Coke made its big announcement that it had changed the formula, it didn’t even seem particularly well prepared to explain what it had done or what the point was.

At a press conference in New York, Coke CEO Robert Goizueta, who had previously been one of the company’s flavor chemists, was asked to describe the new taste.

“Smoother, uh, uh, yet, uh, rounder yet, uh, bolder … it has a more harmonious flavor,” he said, which is exactly the way you’d expect someone who had devoted his life to the product and to flavor chemistry to describe the new taste.

The public hated New Coke, of course, and demanded the return of Old Coke, which ended up being a huge success for the company all over again.

Which brings us back to the trans fats people. While they didn’t really have the option of collectively making crappier-tasting potato chips, they did have the option of inventing a straw man they could easily defeat.

The face of trans fat.

Next time you’re at the grocery store, go down the snack food aisle and see if you can find anything with trans fat in it. Anything. And then ask yourself, if snack foods have contained trans fat for the last 80 years, how is it now so easy to produce them without it?