CHAPTER VI ~ FATS AND VITAMINES
In the days of the ancient Romans vegetable oils were prized for food and butter was used for cosmetics. In America today we are asking what is to become of us if we cannot have butter to eat! Such are the fashions in food. “June butter” is one of our gastronomic traditions. The sample in the restaurant may have none of the firm creamy texture and delicate aromatic flavor of the product of the old spring house; but as long as it is labeled butter we try to bring our sensations into line with our imaginations. For the real butter flavor there is no more a substitute than there is for the aroma of coffee. But these are matters of esthetic pleasure rather than of nutrition. They depend largely upon habit. Whale blubber and seal oil are as much appreciated in some quarters as butter is by us. An American going inland from the Atlantic coast is often surprised to find that olive oil, instead, of being served on every table, is exceedingly disliked.
For the sustenance of the body we must recognize that fat is fat, whatever its flavor. A calorie from butter yields neither more nor less energy than a calorie from lard or bacon, olive oil or cottonseed oil. The common food fats are all very well digested if judiciously used—not in too large quantities, nor over-heated in cooking, and not “cooked into” things too much as in pastries, rich sauces, and fried foods. Whether we spread our bread with butter or beef drippings amounts to the same thing in the long run; the main point is which we are willing to eat.
A change is rapidly coming over our food habits. The price of butter has been soaring beyond our reach, and the market for “butterine,” “nut margarine,” “oleomargarine,” or whatever the substitute table fat may be called, has expanded tremendously. It is excellent household economy to buy milk and a butter substitute rather than cream or butter. In these substitutes refined vegetable oils such as cottonseed, cocoanut, and peanut, and oils derived from beef or lard are so combined or treated as to produce the desired hardness, and churned with milk or milk and butter to improve texture and flavor. Lard substitutes are similarly made from one or more of these fats, but are harder in texture and no attempt is made to give them a butter flavor by churning with milk. All the fats used are wholesome and efficient sources of energy for the human machine.
In the absence of butter some other form of fat is desirable in the diet, because fat is so concentrated a food. There is a limit to the capacity of the human stomach to hold food. People who live on a diet largely of rice, which has almost no fat in its make-up, develop characteristically distended abdomens, because they have to eat such a great quantity of food to get fuel enough for their day’s work. When people are for any reason put on a milk diet for a considerable time it is customary to put something into the milk to make it more concentrated, for otherwise they would drink and drink and then hardly get fuel enough. To give a concrete illustration—a man’s energy requirement for a day may be met by from four to five quarts of milk (unless he is doing very heavy manual labor), but it would be much more practical to substitute a loaf of bread, which is comparatively dry, for one quart of milk, and three ounces of fat (six tablespoonfuls) for another quart of milk, making the total volume but little over half what it would be if four quarts of milk were taken. For people who are engaged in hard physical toil, fat is exceedingly important for this purpose of gaining in concentration. “Fat is fuel for fighters,” and it is perfectly reasonable to ask those who are not doing much heavy labor to eat other kinds of food and save fat for those who simply have to have it to do their work well. In the ordinary mixed diet one can easily dispense with an ounce of fat (two tablespoonfuls). Each tablespoonful is equalled in energy by an apple, or a banana, a large egg, two half-inch slices of bread about three inches square, four dates, four prunes—and it is no great strain on one’s capacity for food to substitute such items for the fat.
On account of its concentration, fat is good for transportation; and aside from its energy value it gives the diet “staying” qualities. Other things being equal, one feels hungry sooner after a meal without fat than after one in which it is liberally supplied. People doing manual labor, and especially out of doors, feel the pangs of hunger more than sedentary folks and hence need more fat to keep them comfortable. No man can do his best work when all the time thinking how hungry he is. It behooves us all then, as good citizens, to recognize the greater need of our soldiers and sailors and our hard-working laborers for as liberal allowances of fat as we can make. At the same time, we cannot for our own best health dispense with fat altogether. We may consider anything up to two ounces apiece a day legitimate for our own maintenance of efficiency.
In departing from food customs there is a natural timidity lest the new food shall in some way be less healthful than the old. Recent scientific researches have revealed a hitherto unsuspected property in butter, a discovery which has aroused some concern as to whether we can safely substitute other fats for it. Young animals fed on a diet of highly purified food materials in which lard is the only kind of fat may seem fairly well but do not grow normally, while those fed the same diet in every respect except that the lard is replaced by butter grow as young animals should and are more resistant to disease. Study of other food fats shows that they may be divided into two groups, one with this growth promoting property and one without it. In general, the vegetable oils do not have it, while butter and beef oil do; on the other hand, lard does not have it, while the oil from corn does. Careful analysis of the situation has shown that a fat-soluble vitamine is present which can in the laboratory be separated from the fat. This same vitamine is present in a variety of food materials—in whole milk, in egg yolks, in leaves of plants—but we have not studied it long enough to know just how much spinach we can substitute for a tablespoonful of butter so far as the vitamine is concerned. We must await further investigations. But we may rest assured that with a fairly liberal amount of milk and some green vegetables, possibly some beef fat, we need not fear any disastrous consequences from the substitution of some other fat for butter. Where the diet is limited and the entire quantity of fat is not very large, it seems prudent to select oleomargarine made largely from beef oil and, where circumstances permit its use without the sacrifice of any other dietary essential, to use butter in the diet of growing children unless they get a full quart of milk apiece a day.
Changing our food customs is difficult because it means also changing our cooking customs. But many dishes can be made with less fat than we are accustomed to put in or with different kinds from those we have hitherto preferred. Often the fat from frying is left in the pan to be washed out and thrown away. If every cook could say to herself, “Every two drops of fat make a calorie and every calorie counts in the world today,” it might seem more worth while to hold the pan a minute and drain out the fat for further use. A thousand calories mean a day’s life to a baby. It is always more wholesome to cook foods so that they are not coated with fat, and one may get brown products in a frying pan without more than a thin film of fat to keep the food from sticking. It is well to remember in this connection that the unsalted lard substitutes are more satisfactory than the saltier fat foods, in which there may be a trace of milk.
The thought that fat is fuel wherever we find it in food will stiffen our resolution to take a little pains with the fats which we have been wont to discard. Anyone can get from the Department of Agriculture suggestions for the practical use of chicken, mutton, beef, and other kinds of meat fats. The main points are to free them from flavor, by melting them with milk or water, possibly using some special absorbent like potato or charcoal too, and then mixing hard and soft together, just as the oleomargarine-makers do, to get such a degree of hardness as suits one’s purpose. All this requires time and thought. Let no one dream that the patriotic duties of the kitchen are trivial. Anything that is worth while costs something; money, thought, labor—perhaps all three. To salvage kitchen fat may not be economical in time and labor (though it generally is more so than one might think), but there is more time and labor than food available today. So it seems the “bit” of the housekeeper to set a standard for her family as to the amount of fat she will purchase per week, which is at least one-fourth lower than their ordinary consumption, and to depend upon special conservation of what may have gone to waste hitherto for any increase in this allowance.