New FDA label requirements last year forced trans fats out of the closet and onto the nutrition panel for the world to see. Now one year later, with New York banning trans fats citywide and more and more press about the health risks, it seems trans fats have become public enemy number one, an evil villain out to kill everyone via french fries and doughnuts.
In his New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof compares the selling of trans fat-laden Girl Scout cookies to "death at the hands of Al Qaeda." In another interview, Dr. Patrick McBride, director of preventive cardiology at University of Wisconsin, says, "People say that you shouldn't regulate what people eat, but this is comparable to taking the lead out of paint."
This may seem a bit harsh for a product that in the late 1980s was thought of as a healthier alternative to saturated fats being used by processors at the time. But trans fats, the byproduct of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), have gotten a bad name for good reason. Research reveals they are the only known food to both raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol at the same time.
Top nutritionists at Harvard University have stated: "By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated oils in the U.S. diet with natural nonhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiologic evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,000 premature deaths annually."
With those kind of claims, it's no wonder everyone is going trans fat-free. Following New York's lead, many other cities have already proposed or are in the process of creating legislation to ban trans fats -- including Westchester County, N.Y., and Chicago. Actually, Tiburon, Calif., was America's first trans fat-free city, according to www.bantransfats.com, an activist group that has led the charge for ridding the U.S. of trans fats.
Entire grocery chains such as natural foods giant Wild Oats, as well as conventional grocery chains in Europe, won't even let products with trans fats in their doors. Fast food operations, notorious for their use of trans fats, are making the conversion. Universal Studios theme park just announced it will make the change.
There are even entire countries going trans fat free. Denmark has passed this legislation, and Canada is well on its way. This means processors who don't jump aboard the trans-free train may soon have no way of making it past the Canadian border. Even more, if this legislation passes in our neighboring country, then it may not be long before the U.S. drafts a similar ban.
Trans-free and proud
In sharp contrast to the vilification of trans fats is the celebration of "trans-free." The words are displayed proudly in bold colors on packages throughout stores. Products that didn't even have trans fats to begin with are declaring in big bold letters they are "trans fat-free."
Perhaps because it's based in Canada, which took earlier actions against trans fats, Voortman Cookies and its officials have been vocal proponents of removing trans fats from all foods. "Zero trans fats!" is proclaimed on all its cookie packages.
Voortman Cookies Ltd., Burlington, Ontario, was one of the first processors to eliminate trans fats, doing so back in April of 2004. Its officials have been very vocal about the need for and the ability of other processors to do likewise.
Also a leader in the movement was Campbell Soup Co. division Pepperidge Farm, whose Goldfish were the first crackers to swim past the trans-free finish line in 2004 by replacing partially hydrogenized soybean oil with sunflower and canola oil.
"We did extensive testing with children and adults and all the feedback was very positive," says Geri Allen, manager of brand and corporate communications for Pepperidge Farms (www.pepperidgefarm.com), Norwalk, Conn. "With the new formulation, sales have been doing very well with steady growth every year." This past December, Pepperidge Farm announced it successfully converted its complete cookie line, as well.
Some had to work harder than others to come up with a trans fat alternative, but the results have been worth it. Kraft reportedly spent two years, including over 30,000 man hours and 125 plant trials, before coming up with a palm oil-based creme that matches the flavor and texture of the original Oreo cookie.
Kraft seems to have hit it on the nose. In the "Tasters Choice" column in the San Francisco Chronicle, the new trans-free Oreo got the highest rating in a blind taste test of five sandwich cookie samples. "Perfect balance of toasted cocoa and filling sweetness. Crunchy, but not too crisp," said one tester. "Chocolate flavor is strong, and the filling has a good balance," said another. All of the participating tasters agreed they would buy these cookies.
Fine-tuning the fats
Although it has been done by many, replacing trans fats was and still isn't an easy process. "The industry became very dependant on the technology of partially hydrogenated oil. It was the workhorse. It did what everyone needed," says Tom Tiffany, food oil applications manager at ADM (www.admworld.com), Decatur, Ill.
What once was one simple, cost-effective process that performed well in practically all areas of processing, has become much more complex, incorporating a multitude of products and techniques. Within this spectrum of solutions are varying levels of functionality contributing things like texture, flavor and shelf life as well as health profiles, availability and costs.