Time to change your oil

There are good fats and bad fats; next year, trans fats are going to be very bad.

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By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

Ingredient suppliers are frantically developing specialty fats for various applications to help out food processors who must remove trans fats by the end of next year or share the harsh spotlight that will be shone upon them.

Recent research shows that commercially produced trans fatty acids are to a large extent responsible for the development of cardiovascular diseases. They also may have a negative impact on fetus weight and may be connected to Type 2 diabetes. The mounting evidence motivated the public health sectors to develop a clearer understanding of the health implications of fats on consumer health and wellness.

The FDA ruling requires that processors clearly declare the amount of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts panel by Jan. 1, 2006 (at least for foods with more than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving). 2005 is expected to be a year of much debate and public education about the dangers of trans fats, so this simple label declaration will not go unnoticed. Already, numerous food marketers are bringing out reformulated products — from Golden Oreos to new Goldfish — trumpeting the fact that trans fats have been removed.

The anti-trans fat movement has important implications on food processing and health.

Good fats and bad fats

Food processors are now faced with the formidable task of educating consumers on "good fats" and "bad fats." That’s especially daunting since the nutrition advisers of this country spent most of the 1990s preaching that all fats are bad.

Some oils are better for you than others, and some oils perform better than others in food processing.

For years, health experts advised Americans to restrict fat consumption. Now, they are quietly adding that fats are a source of essential nutrition and necessary in the diet.

The trick is to consume the right kind of fat in the appropriate amount, since all oils are the same when it comes to calories but significantly different in composition and nutritional attributes. Fats and oils contribute about 9 calories per gram; the term "light" refers only to the taste and not the nutritional makeup of oils.

Oils are either saturated or unsaturated. When unsaturated, they may be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Oils are not homogenously made up of just one type of fat. Rather, each is a combination of the saturated and unsaturated fats in distinct proportions, unique to the source from which they are derived.

Saturated fats are derived primarily from animal sources, although a few come from vegetable sources such as coconut and palm. Saturated fats such as margarine and vegetable shortening are commercially produced by the partial or complete saturation of oils – this transformation is chemically induced and is accompanied by solidification of its normal liquid state.

This process, called hydrogenation, adds extra hydrogen atoms to double bonds and reduces them to single bonds, thereby converting unsaturated fat into saturated fat. When the hydrogen atoms are added on the same plane, the cis form of the fatty acid results. Addition of hydrogen on the opposite planes creates the trans form of the fatty acid – the unhealthiest of all fats and shown to be the number one cause of heart disease.

Their unique nutritional makeup, distinct flavor, and melting points render some oils more appropriate for certain uses than others. Strategies to replace hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats with alternatives therefore depend largely on the application and on the nature of the replacement ingredient.

Media sensationalism has pretty much convinced consumers that all hydrogenated fats contain trans fats. The general press has done little to address the beneficial effects of the other components of partially hydrogenated fats. Despite an Aug. 11 Wall Street Journal story, "Fat bounces back," there has been little press about "good fats," such as monounsaturated fats, which can reduce cholesterol.

Since consumers are translating "partially hydrogenated" on nutrition labels to mean trans fats, many are abandoning some perfectly good food products for the wrong reasons. For example when consumers learned that partially hydrogenated fat was added to peanut butter to help prevent separation, shoppers did not realize the trans fats were added at such low levels that they could not be detected. Instead, they removed peanut butter from their shopping lists.

Many consumers do not know trans fats also occur in nature and are naturally present in dairy, meat, and poultry products as the result of bacterial biohydrogenation. Biohydrogenation produces trans fats that differ chemically from those produced commercially and generally in levels well below the labeling threshold.

The absence of a daily value for trans fats and the FDA’s suggested footnote on labels that "Intake of trans fats should be as low as possible" could delude consumers into believing they can eliminate trans fats from their diets if they consume foods with no trans fat declarations on their labels. But the labeling practice of rounding out as zero levels below 1 gram per serving could mean consumers are still getting trans fats in their diets. This issue is magnified further when one considers that consumers often eat more than a single serving, especially if it is one of their favorite foods.

In addition, while some food formulators have switched to unsaturated "good" fats or new biotechnologically engineered heart-healthy oils, others are opting for highly saturated fats, which can cause other health problems. Consumers may thus be driven to select foods higher in saturated fats and continue to face higher risks of heart disease.

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