This month's Oma Maitse culinary magazine features a message from the Estonian Foodstuff Producer Union that masquerades as an informative news article (Estonian text version here). Laid out on a field of Day-Glo yellow rapeseed (canola for North Americans) -- one of the most distinctive features of Estonia in the summer as viewed from the air -- the article appears to be educating the public about how unsaturated fats are more healthful than saturated fats and transfats.
Let's leave aside the still-open question of whether saturated fats are really that bad for you. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. Certainly Estonian expeller-pressed canola oil and its monounsaturated cousins like olive and peanut oil are healthful.
So midway through the article, we're all cheering for unsaturated fats from plant sources. And then the article asks, "So why is hydrogenation necessary"?
Because, you see, I thought hydrogenation wasn't necessary. In fact, I thought it was a nasty chemical process that destroys a lot of nutritious compounds and results in what has been called a metabolic poison. Denmark and New York City have banned the use of partially hydrogenated oil in food. Banned. As in, it's illegal.
Unfortunately, the Foodstuff Producer Union piece turns out to be a bit of an apologia for the food industry's use of a cheap industrial ingredient (as much as they can get away with) to substitute for real, delicious butterfat in cakes, ice cream and cottage cheese products.
It's a cynical and unsavoury mixing of concepts -- public health on one hand, and the profit margins of the Union's members on the other.
I've often written and talked aout how wonderful Estonian bread and dairy products are. They are -- they are mainly wholesome and yogurt comes in flavours like cloudberry-honey-apple and rhubarb-oat.
But the ice cream situation is a notable exception to this rule.
There is not a single brand of ice cream on sale in Estonia that is all-natural -- the nondescript Regatt is rich and comes close, but all of them feature some combination of skim milk powder, water and cream; the downmarket varieties contain a combination of vegetable fat, oil, water and milk solids. Some are non-dairy and not clearly labelled as such. The sad thing is, you can taste it. You can taste the skim milk powder.
Contrast that to the situation in the US, where besides Häagen-Dazs vanilla (cream, milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla bean -- full stop) and Breyers's natural line (more or less the same as Häagen-Dazs with some natural-source thickeners and gums), numerous local dairies churn and market excellent, rich natural ice cream -- even sold in supermarket chains. People have been blasting the US for so long for artificiality and fast food that they've been caught sleeping -- now America's far ahead.
[Gratuitous nostalgic plug for the best yogurt in the universe (granted, 11% fat)]
"Vegetable fat" -- which unless it is palm oil is nearly guaranteed to be a hydrogenated oil -- is the main transgressor. It really shouldn't be there. It doesn't taste like cream or butter. It really serves one purpose -- padding the profit margin of big producers. Butterfat is expensive, and when you use a bunch of poorly-matched ingredients like casein, water and oil that don't really mix, you need stability in the form of a waxy lipid that stays firm even when the ice cream gets soft.
This is actually a deep-seated problem. Foodstuffs in Estonia are controlled on both ends -- big production and chain commerce. Madis Jürgen wrote a piece for Eesti Ekspress a couple years ago about the difficulty a small producer would face to get a quality product -- I believe it was a carrot jam -- included in the assortment of a chain like Rimi.
The influence of big business results in a lot of questionable standard practices and lack of consumer alternatives. For example, there is not a single jellied meat or sausage product routinely available that does not contain nitrites or at least glutamates. E211 or sodium benzoate -- a very suspect molecule that contains the benzene ring -- as I have noted before, is routinely added to products that are canned and do not really need it.
The industry is ready with justifications at the drop of a hat. It has noted in the past that E211 occurs naturally in some form in cowberries and cranberries. Must be OK, then.
Now it has outdone itself again -- by insisting that its companies are primarily looking out for our public health. That's why they're replacing some of that evil, evil butterfat with small quantities of plant fats that have undergone strafing by a battery of corrosive chemicals.
Article: "Even though vegetable oils with unsaturated bonds are beneficial to health, unfortunately due to technological and sensory reasons it is not possible to use only vegetable oils in the food industry."
The translation into English: "If only we could, we would make ice cream out of 100% vegetable oil, too, but it would end up looking and tasting like total shit. (But we're working on it.)"