Trans Fats Inspire Fear and Loathing

With the labeling deadline approaching and consumers becoming wary, processors search for substitutes for the functionality of trans fatty acids.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

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Nutrition is beginning to give taste and convenience some competition as the key driver in the food industry. 2005 is becoming a year that has heightened consumers’ awareness of nutrition, first by the introduction of the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans and more recently with the new Food Guide Pyramid. The end of the year will bring the next big nutritional milestone: a required declaration of trans fatty acids in all food products that contain them.

With the deadline still six months away, there already is evidence consumers are becoming aware of the dangers of these fats. Trans fats are being talked about on TV and in magazine and newspaper articles. Many products that already have had their trans fats removed or never had them are touting that claim on their front labels. While the removal of trans fats is not mandatory, consumer awareness – and the social conscience of food processors – may be making it so.

Keep an eye on Canada

Pat Martin, a member of Canada’s Parliament and a dedicated anti-trans fat campaigner, is trying to make Canada trans fat-free. How this efforts plays out is of crucial importance to U.S. manufacturers for two reasons.

First, if Canada bans trans fats, consumers in the U.S. will expect and demand a similar ban. Second, trans fat-containing products made in the states could no longer be shipped to retailers in Canada. Processors with significant Canadian sales probably could not economically make products in two versions - one with trans fat and the other without . They probably would create a single version without trans fat in order not to forfeit sales in the Canadian market.

While Europe has yet to introduce rules on the labeling of trans fats, Denmark last year became the first country in the world to ban them entirely.

Of the four major kinds of fat found in foods (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans), trans fatty acids are considered to be the most harmful. Trans fats have been linked to elevated blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, increased risk of heart disease and even certain cancers. All those factors are among the reasons the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require their acknowledgement on the Nutrition Facts panel by Jan. 1, 2006.

It’s notable trans fats have less to do with taste than with operational functionality – they make the product look bigger and better, last longer, cost less. As a result, food processors are cautious with their efforts to reduce and remove trans fats. The cost issues are significant, and to date there is no solution that is less expensive operationally.

So why are we making them?

Hydrogenation, the process that creates trans fatty acids, increases the thermal and oxidative stability of the original fat or oil, providing a desired firmness and plasticity to certain processed foods. The food industry values partially hydrogenated fats for their stability and suitability for margarine and creaming/aerating applications, especially in bakery applications. They also increase shelf life.

The purpose of hydrogenation is to solidify vegetable oil by reconfiguring the very same double bonds that characterize liquid oils as healthful mono- and poly-unsaturated ones. The resulting solid, saturated fats with trans or cis single bonds are more stable but not as healthful as the starting raw material.

The addition of atoms to the same side of the double bond creates a “cis” compound; addition to opposite sides form “trans” compounds. The latter are more space-balanced and therefore more easily and more abundantly formed in commercial manufacture and relatively more stable. While it is not possible to control where the atoms are added during hydrogenation, the extent to which it happens can be controlled and, consequently, the range of properties of the partially hydrogenated fat can be managed.

Commercially produced partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, introduced in the early 1990s, are the principal sources of trans fatty acids in the diet of the U.S. population, according to the FDA. The regulatory chemical definition of the FDA for trans fatty acids is "all unsaturated fatty acids that contain one or more isolated (i.e., non-conjugated) double bonds in a trans configuration."

Americans consume about 5.8 g of trans fatty acids daily (or 2.6 percent of all calories), the FDA estimates. Baked goods are the No. 1 source, accounting for 40 percent. Other large contributors are animal products (21 percent), margarine (17 percent), fried potatoes (8 percent) and snack foods (potato chips, corn chips, and popcorn — 5 percent). The agency's final rule mandates that all food manufacturers list trans fatty acids on the Nutrition Facts panel when their products contain at least 0.5 g of trans fatty acids. Health Canada, the Canadian counterpart of the FDA, mandates declaration for products containing 0.2 g or more of trans fatty acids per serving.

The baking industry is the hardest hit because bakery products are typically among the highest in fat and also because they rely heavily on the functionality of partially hydrogenated fats for texture and appearance. Pastries and cookies owe their light, crispy and flaky textures to aeration by saturated and trans fats.

The FDA reports cakes, cookies, crackers, pies and bread are the leading source of the trans fats consumed by Americans. This predominance of usage may cause additional pressure on the baking sector to conform to lowering or eliminating trans fats.

Gorton’s already has removed trans fat from all 56 of its retail seafood products.

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