Trans fat elimination

by Allison Sebolt
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The elimination of trans-fatty acids has practically become a requirement for the food industry, supported by 1,727 new products introduced in 2007 with low/no/reduced trans fat claims compared with 1,438 in 2006 and 883 in 2005, according to Mintel’s Global New Product Database. In January and February of 2008, Mintel International, Chicago, said 272 new products were launched with limited or no trans fats.

In addition, the majority of food service operators are cutting trans fats from their menus as well.

"Companies wanting to have their products look as good as possible or be as positive as they can be are doing everything they can to reformulate," said Lynn Dornblaser, senior new products analyst with Mintel.

The initial push to eliminate trans fats came when the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) mandated that as of Jan. 1, 2006, the Nutrition Facts Panel of all packaged food labels must indicate the amount of trans-fatty acids in a serving of the food product.

"This whole trend is very much black and white," Ms. Dornblaser said. "It’s driven by sound health research, and it’s driven by government regulation very specifically."

Increased attention and confusion

While the industry has been working to eliminate trans fats from some products, consumers are becoming confused in the process, said Shelley Goldberg, senior director of nutrition communications with the International Food Information Council, Washington.

Ms. Goldberg said 20% to 35% of a consumer’s daily calories should come from fat. While trans fats should be a limited portion of this fat intake, she said the overall message being conveyed from communications leads consumers to believe all fats are unhealthy.

"There is a pretty big knowledge among consumers that they should have less trans fats and less saturated fats, but sometimes the communication that is out there . . . may be inconsistent with the goals of the dietary guidelines," Ms. Goldberg said.

Specifically, Ms. Goldberg said in 2004 consumers were beginning to understand what trans fats are, and in 2006, 81% of consumers said they had heard of trans fats. In 2007, 87% said they had heard of trans fats. Yet at the same time as knowledge of "bad" fats increased, Ms. Goldberg said consumer knowledge of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — the more healthful fats — decreased significantly and consumers also said they were trying to consume less of the more healthful fats.

"We definitely see that as these ‘bad fats’ are really taking the spotlight and getting all the press, consumers are having trouble knowing which fat they should consume," Ms. Goldberg said.

Ms. Dornblaser said companies are not explaining trans fat issues very well other than to label appropriate products as being devoid of the fat and to follow the F.D.A.’s regulations. She said this is because it’s a complex issue, consumers have heard information in the media and it’s an overall negative message.

Ms. Goldberg said such lack of attention to the full scope of nutritional information regarding fats misleads consumers.

"Things like that perpetuate consumer’s fat phobia that they have had for years and are counterproductive to consumers knowing that there are essential fatty acids … I feel that the focus is on the negative rather than what consumers can do," Ms. Goldberg said.

It also appears that all types of consumers are buying products with reduced trans fats with no one type of consumer more likely to purchase such products than another.

"I think this one is so well-accepted, it’s been talked about so much that it pretty much crosses any demographic or segmentation lines you would want to look at," Ms. Dornblaser said.

Fast-paced reformulation

Susanne Norwitz, spokesperson for The Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., said by the end of 2007 more than 95% of the Kellogg portfolio was converted to 0 grams trans fat per serving. This included more than 1,300 products.

Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., said when federal regulations went into effect in 2006 to label trans fats on packages, fewer than 2.5% of Kraft’s products had to bear labeling stating trans fats were present. Most of those products had naturally occurring trans fats.

Ms. Goldberg noted concern about how rapidly companies and food service operators have been working to remove trans fats from the food supply. She said changes in food production require research and time to develop alternatives, and she hopes the hasty nature of some reformulations does not set the industry back. Specifically, trans fats originally were introduced in the 1960s in an effort to reduce the amount of saturated fat in foods. Yet some foods require a fat with similar qualities to produce the same quality product, so Ms. Goldberg said there is a possibility saturated fats could be reintroduced to foods as a trans fat replacement, bringing the "bad fat" issue full cycle.

"We worked to make significant reductions in trans fat content while maintaining the taste and quality of our products," said Susan Davison, spokesperson for Kraft. "We also aimed to ensure the combination of saturated plus trans fat in a reformulated product did not increase when compared to the original formulation."

In addition, Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, has developed Omega-9 Oils, which are made from canola and sunflower seed, as a trans fat replacement. The product offers unsaturated fats, and more than 70 food service chains have begun using this oil.

Yet how quickly the industry is being pressured to reformulate does present an issue.

"One of the bigger challenges today is we are converting the whole oil supply, so as a result we’ve had to ramp up production quickly," said David Dzisiak, commercial leader for oils with Dow AgroSciences. "The supply chain for these things are longer . . . Some companies in the past may have been used to just calling up the supplier, asking for something and getting it pretty quickly. But because we are in the front end of that conversion, we need some extra lead time versus the norm to ensure we have enough production."

Ms. Dornblaser said the issue of trans fats is different from other industry-wide issues, such as whole grains, where certain companies are focusing on reformulating products so they can talk to consumers about the benefits of the newly reformulated product. She said with trans fats, companies are feeling the pressure from government and health research to reformulate. As a result, she said it’s not really about one company doing a better job at offering reduced trans fat products than another.

"I would guess eventually what we are going to see is that products aren’t going to say on front-of-pack that a product has no trans fats," Ms. Dornblaser said. "It’s quite simply going to be something on the nutrition label just because it’s going to be expected."

Ms. Dornblaser added there is limited reduced trans fat reformulation in significantly value-priced products and in some foreign countries, but it is present in most other channels.

"It’s not an optional thing for most companies," she said. "For the most part, this is just now becoming the cost of doing business."

Ms. Dornblaser said there could be an increase of about 10% in reduced trans fat products introduced in 2008. She also said there doesn’t need to be much more government regulation in the future.

"I don’t think the government needs to step in," Ms. Dornblaser said. "I think the market forces will enforce the situation."

Bob Goldin, executive vice-president with Technomic, Chicago, said the reduction in trans fats has had little business-building impact on the food service industry as a whole as it has become expected. Mr. Goldin also said increasingly it is becoming a cost of business that has not been a positive or negative.

Euromonitor International, Chicago, said mandatory labeling in the U.S. fast-food sector potentially could be damaging as not many chains truly are prepared for the switch.

Most pressure for food service operators to reformulate has come from state and local governments as well as competition. Mr. Goldin said city-wide bans have become so common that the bans are not necessary anymore, adding that they have been successful in mobilizing some of the chains to switch to different formulations.

"Consumer studies show that trans fat content does have very little impact on consumers’ fast-food purchasing decisions," Euromonitor said. "Yet enthusiastic government regulations threaten those companies that have failed to embrace the trans-fat-free alternatives as more regions and municipalities become trans-fat-free zones."

Euromonitor also said McDonald’s, Starbucks and Frito-Lay have invested several years in reformulating, product testing and commodity sourcing changes to develop a trans-fat-free alternative that does not change flavor, but their experience suggests switching to trans-fat-free alternatives is not quite as simple as promising to do so. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that of the fries from the three leading hamburger chains in New York City that were cooked using trans-fat-free oil, only those from McDonald’s were truly trans-fat-free. While Burger King and Wendy’s cut their trans fat content in half, both chains were still above the daily recommended amount because the fries were pre-cooked in partially hydrogenated oil.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 18, 2008, starting on Page 41. Click here to search that archive.

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