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What's in your snack food? Mmm ... lemon ... and lard.

There's a Cow in My Pie

By Allie Gottlieb

VEGETARIANS CONFUSE people. Do they eat chicken or fish? Do they eat dairy? Who knows; who cares. But Biter will tell you this: Vegetarians do not eat beef fat. They do, however, enjoy lemon pie.

That being the case, Biter was incredibly disturbed to learn on a recent snack-shopping voyage down Interstate 5 that there may have been beef fat in our lemon pie. (The ingredient listing was cagey about whether there actually was beef fat in the product.) "What the hell," we said to ourselves upon learning the secret of the inappropriately meaty snack food. "Why is there meat in my pie?" This was obviously less a question for ourselves than a question for Hostess, maker of the fruit pie with real fruit filling and "one or more of: partially hydrogenated soybean or cottonseed oil, beef fat."

According to Mark Dirkes, director of marketing for Hostess' mothership, the Interstate Brands Corporation (IBC), the company made these ingredient decisions in its customers' best interest (and not, as one might have thought, by calculating the best ways to piss off vegetarians).

"From a health standpoint," Dirkes told Biter, "research has proved that trans fatty acids from hydrogenated vegetable shortening are just as bad as saturated oil from beef fat."

Well, OK, that makes sense. IBC cares about the consumer and doesn't want to serve unhealthy pastries. But if beef and vegetable shortening both make people fat and dead, why choose the beef? Isn't IBC afraid of alienating would-be vegetarian customers who might like their pack of three tiny doughnuts beef-free, Biter wanted to know?

"I'm going to just share with you that we don't get a lot of inquiries like yours," Dirkes responded, not entirely pleasantly. He said Muslims and Jews ask about how to find Twinkies and Ding Dongs that have no beef fat, or "tallow," as Dirkes prefers to call it. He just directs them to the East Coast, where apparently some bakeries operate beef-fat-free. But he wouldn't tell Biter how to reach the East Coast, what those bakeries were called or how someone from California could purchase a Hostess pie for which cows did not have to die.

IBC is also in charge of Wonder Bread, Homepride Bread and some San Francisco sourdough brands. The corporation used to make these breads with animal shortening, but it switched to a soy-based oil over a decade ago, Dirkes said. IBC has also considered swapping lard for veggie shortening, following McDonald's example. So far, it's decided, nyah. IBC just doesn't see the point.

"It is unfortunate that Hostess takes that position," said John Cunningham, consumer-product research manager for Baltimore-based national nonprofit the Vegetarian Resource Group. By his group's last count, there were about 4.8 million vegetarians in the United States. "That's something that every company has to decide for itself," he said. "How important is that market?" The VRG recommends certain fast-food restaurants for road-trip pit stops. These include the one every Californian vegetarian is born knowing: Taco Bell, which serves lard-free been burritos made with lard-free tortillas. The VRG also suggests Burger King's new non-beastie-fat-fried fries and Subway's veggie subs.

Since people who don't eat meat are so confusing to people who make pies, Biter would like to make things simple. Our point is this: beef fat has no place in a fruit pie, a doughnut or a Ding Dong. Come on, people--it's gross, like broccoli ice cream.

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From the November 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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