Trans fatty acids (TFAs) have developed a reputation for being the deadliest fat in the American diet since the discovery they contribute to inflammation, coronary heart disease and other health issues. The food industry's efforts to reduce or remove TFAs are causing a paradigm shift in the marketplace and significant differences in products that had not changed for decades.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required the amount of trans fats to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel of all packaged food products as of Jan. 1. Amounts less than 0.5g did not need any declaration. While there was no mandate for their removal nor any scary warnings about what TFAs do, consumers have become surprisingly aware of their dangers over the past year. Many food processors saw Jan. 1 as a deadline for their elimination.
"We estimate within three years after the effective date, trans fat labeling will prevent from 600 to 1,200 cases of coronary heart disease and 250 to 500 deaths each year," Scott Gottlieb, FDA's deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, reported at a Nov. 30, 2005, conference.
The FDA mandate does not apply to all foods. Raw fish, meat and chicken are exempted, so are foods bought at in-store bakeries and delis, as well as foods intended to be eaten where they are purchased, which also excludes all restaurant and foodservice offerings. Also exempt are small retailers (grossing less than $500,000 in annual sales or selling less than $50,000 worth of foods) and small-scale producers, provided they file a notice annually with the FDA. Additionally, the FDA has allowed a number of manufacturers to finish their on-hand stock of labels before complying.
In Canada, regulations required the listing of TFAs (if more than 0.2g per serving) to the Nutrition Facts table by Dec. 12, 2005. Small manufacturers have until Dec. 12, 2007 to comply.
Critics of any delays or exemptions argue that the multinationals changed nearly overnight to reduce or eliminate their TFA content in 2004, when Denmark mandated TFA to less than 2 percent of total fat in processed foods.
|For ConAgra, removing trans fats from tub margarine spreads was easy, but removing them from stick margarine was a challenge.
Those who claim TFAs can be eliminated easily in processed foods do not understand the depth, proliferation and impact of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) in food processing and the limitations of the solutions developed thus far. Nor do they understand how Americans select and decide what to buy and eat.
Even though TFAs do not have to be removed, "The timing is just right. With obesity statistics at an all-time high and worsening and health issues topping consumer concerns, the pressure is coming from all sides," says Yokima Cureton, product developer at Novozymes AS's (www.novozymes.com) U.S. headquarters in Franklinton, N.C. "Influential retailers like Wal-Mart are refusing to stock shelves with products without TFA labeling and are actively seeking products with no TFAs."
Currently there is no drop-in replacement for TFAs in processed foods. Some companies are using solutions that lead to healthier but costlier products, while others are settling for saturated fats and products that are not any healthier. And it appears to us at Corvus Blue, my food industry competitive intelligence firm, that none of the reformulated products truly matches the original.
It wasn't easy
The current challenge is both technical and philosophical, according to Ted Pelloso, senior research leader at ConAgra Foods (www.conagrafoods.com), Omaha, Neb. "There are many ways to remove TFAs. Each company has to decide the route most appropriate for them and their loyal consumers. The key is to make products indistinguishable from the incumbents…so as to continue pleasing and retaining consumers."
The path to removing TFAs is difficult. Much of this difficulty stems from a general lack of understanding of what exactly TFAs do in foods to produce the characteristic light and flaky pastries; crunchy chips and snacks that don't turn rancid rapidly; soft, moist baked goods with aerated volumes; and french fries and fried chicken that are crisp and taste great every time.
The difficulty is further confounded by the high expectations of American consumers, who want quality and taste in their processed foods, usually paramount to everything else including health considerations.
Some of the foods that most rely on partially hydrogenated fats (and therefore contain the most TFAs) include vegetable shortenings, margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, frozen foods, baking mixes, frostings, baked goods, salad dressings and doughnuts.
Manufacturers of margarine and other non-butter spreads and shortening rely on both TFAs and saturated fats for functionality and taste. Packaged baking mix makers such as Jiffy and General Mills pack several grams of TFA per serving in order to produce light, fluffy-textured finished products. Soup makers rely on very high levels of TFAs for ramen noodles and cup soups with extended shelf stability without rancidity.
Food vendors serving french fries and deep-fried fish and chicken rely on PHOs for crunchy texture, taste and oil stability. Frozen food manufacturers use TFAs for their invaluable contribution to freeze-thaw stability of frozen pies, pot pies and breaded fish sticks. Bakers use TFAs for baked and fried bakery products such as doughnuts and pastries for enhanced appearance, taste and texture. Chips and crackers owe their crispiness and shelf life to TFA-rich shortening.