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As a longtime reader of ingredients labels, I beg you to clarify the ubiquitous phrase, "partially hydrogenated." I assume it has something to do with hydrogen, but what does that highly flammable gas have to do with food? And why partially hydrogenated? Why not get down, go crazy and hydrogenate to the max? --Mr. Sinister, Chicago

Ah, the mad impetuousness of youth. We dasn't totally hydrogenate, you silly thing, or we would all die of heart failure inside of a year. At least that's the impression I get from the extremists on the subject.

Hydrogenation involves cramming hydrogen gas into vegetable oil under pressure. It's what's you do to make the oil semisolid at room temperature rather than liquid, which is obviously useful in the case of products like margarine. Hydrogenation also retards spoilage and prevents baked goods from winding up too greasy. Worthy though these goals may be, they involve converting unsaturated (good) fats into saturated (bad) fats, which have been linked with heart disease.

The solution is partial hydrogenation, in which you create no more saturated fat than necessary to accomplish the task at hand. Done properly, partial hydrogenation results in only a minor increase in saturated fats. Margarine made from soybean oil, for example, starts out around 15 percent saturated and winds up 17-20 percent. Soft margarine, the kind that comes in tubs, does better than the stick variety, but both compare quite favorably with butter, which is 66 percent saturated.

Still, there are those who consider margarine to be on a par with hemlock, mainly because hydrogenation also produces something known as "trans" fats, trans referring to a certain configuration of hydrogen atoms in the fat molecules. A vocal minority of writers and researchers consider trans fats a major cause of heart disease. The research supporting this view is dubious, however. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a D.C.-based nutrition advocacy group that usually pounces on stuff like this, says trans fats are nothing to worry about. Of course, that's what they used to say about one-night stands. I'll let you know if anything develops.

How come the bottled red stuff you see in stores is sometimes called ketchup and sometimes catsup? It all looks the same to me. --George Steinfeld, Dallas, Texas

There is an interesting answer for this, George, and then there is the real answer. The interesting answer is that our word ketchup, which originally meant a spicy fish sauce, comes from the Malay kechap, which Dutch traders transliterated as ketjap. But it turns out the Malays had borrowed the word from the Chinese ke-tsiap, which I gather sounds more like catsup. So you could argue that European merchants called their spicy fish sauce ketchup or catsup depending on whether they'd bought it in Malaya or China.

Unfortunately, it appears the Chinese themselves had two versions of the word, ke-tsiap and koe-chiap. So the real answer, unless some 17th-century Chinese shows up to clarify things, is that we just don't know why there are two versions, there just are. As a kid I used to get mad when my father fed me that line, but I'm starting to understand how the old guy felt.

Who the hell is Grenville Clark, the guy pictured on the 39-cent stamp? He's not in any reference books and nobody at the library seems to know. The theory around here is that he's Preston Tisch's brother-in-law. --Listener, WBEZ radio, Chicago

Show some respect, churl. Described by the New York Times as "one of the great private citizens of his time," lawyer Clark (1882-1967) was a powerful behind-the-scenes advocate of civil liberties and, oddly enough, world federalism. (Oddly because "one-worlders" are a perennial bugaboo of the right-wingers who supported Ronald Reagan, during whose administration the Clark stamp was introduced.) He wrote the World War II draft law, organized opposition to FDR's efforts to pack the Supreme Court, and was generally an influential if little-known figure in the U.S. political establishment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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