Friday, September 14, 2012

Chemically-engineered Fat-Free Hamburgers, or How Our Debate on Energy Parallels that on Food

Several months ago (and by several months, I think I mean a year), I was trying to explain to someone why clean coal was an oxymoron and that, even if cleaning coal were possible, it would be a waste of money. To explain this, I drew parallels to another problem of energy in the US--that of food.

"So, I have an excellent idea for how to solve the obesity epidemic.  What we should do is pay scientists--or the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, whatever---money so that they can chemically extract the fat out of hamburgers.  Right?  People eat lots of hamburgers; they don't want fresh produce.  So we should make the hamburgers better for them by blowing ridiculous sums of money on this scheme to engineer fat-removal.  Now, we certainly won't change the ways that we raise the cows; that, of course, need not enter the picture.  The same can be said for the idea that maybe, just maybe, instead of eating these fat-removed hamburgers, people would be better off eating fresh produce, and we should spend our money on getting fresh produce available.  Madness, I tell you!  If we don't invent chemically-engineered fat free hamburgers, the Chinese will do it before us.  They've certainly taken a liking to beef lately."

However, as I began to think on this more, I realized that the parallels extended further.

The trio of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) can be paired with the trio damaging the American diet:  fat, sugar salt.  Clearly, we've already established the coal-fat connection.  Sugar would be the equivalent of oil.  Sugar (especially HFCS) is in just about everything that we eat, and the only way to avoid it would be to avoid purchasing any item that has been remotely processed.  The US has also invaded other countries and threatened their sovereignty because of its sweet tooth just as it has for its oil fix.

Salt, then, would be natural gas.  People like to say that natural gas is "clean burning," and salt has no calories, right?  You want to lose weight--start replacing fat and sugar in your diet with salt!  No calories--amazing!  Let's dump salt on all our food so that we won't need to grease it up or sweeten it.  Now, despite the occasional studies that try to prove otherwise, we all know that salt is still bad for your heart, and no person in their right mind would tell you that salt, salt, and MORE SALT is the best way to a healthful diet.  Salt, like natural gas, is also an enemy of fresh water and pleasant drinking water.

Although, at first, I thought that artificial sweeteners (e.g. Splenda) would be a great parallel for biofuels, I have since realized that an even better one is the potato.  "You want vegetables in your diet?  Have a potato!"  Granted, potatoes, being high in starch, are low on the totem pole of vegetables, they have arguably more industry and political advocates than their other vegetable peers.  (Think back to the recent school lunches debates.)  However, replacing sugar, salt, and fat with lots of starchy potatoes will still not make you healthy. 

Coffee would be nuclear power.  "I've got the perfect solution for your diet problem.  CAFFEINATE, CAFFEINATE, CAFFEINATE."  Right?  Caffeine has no calories and can help you lose weight.  (Coffee and cigarettes, the diet of the stars!) Granted, though, it makes you thirsty, and if you drink too much, you might explode.

All the while, the idea of investing money in increasing access to locally-grown produce falls by the wayside because that, of course, could not possibly be the best way to improve our energy intake.

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