Trained testers or true fans

by Jeff Gelski
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Some food formulators may relate to a comment attributed to Barbara Booth, director of the sensory science laboratory for McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.

"Our customers don’t want better," she said in a Chicago Tribune story in January. "They want the same."

She was referring to McDonald’s attempts to rid its french fries of trans fat while keeping the same taste, appearance, texture and aftertaste the chain’s customers know and desire. Food manufacturers and restaurant chains across the country want to do the same with their products, but they might not have the financial resources — or thousands of restaurants — to use as test markets like McDonald’s does.

In response, companies have started to offer tests designed to see if a product formulated to be free of trans fat compares to the original product. The tests may involve consumers of the product or trained sensory testers.

Focus on Food, Atlanta, seeks consumers of clients’ products for its new TransValidate program. The program has a goal of finding the identical match of the client’s customers, said Ron Marks, president of Focus on Food and formerly the senior vice-president of research and development at Applebee’s International, Inc., Overland Park, Kas.

The company recommends a minimum of 120 consumers for testing, which gives a 90% degree of accuracy, plus or minus 5%. On a larger scale, 400 consumers will give a 98% degree of accuracy, plus or minus 2%. The consumers of the product rate such areas as aroma, flavor, texture and color.

Focus on Food launched TransValidate less than a year ago and has worked with both food manufacturers and restaurant chains.

"The product is too new to give annual growth trends," Mr. Marks said. "The demand is very high for the product right now."

Archer Daniels Midland Co., Decatur, Ill., hires professional sensory testers. One in 10 applicants is accepted for the sensory panel, according to ADM.

"These personnel are trained to identify certain types of flavor and texture associated with the use of fats and oils," said Tom Tiffany, food oils applications manager for ADM.

The number of testers involved in tasks involving trans fat-free products depends on what the customer seeks in a product, he said.

"The type of assistance will depend on the type of food product that is being evaluated," he said. "The sensory assistance can be geared around flavors commonly associated with fats and oils as well as textural attributes associated with the use of fats and oils."

Texas A&M University in College Station received input from both consumers and trained testers in a recent program involving oils free of trans fat used in cooking french fries., L.L.C. contracted with the college’s Food Protein Research and Development Center. Stephen Joseph owns and is president and chief executive officer. Mr. Joseph also is associated with the web site

Fatty acid profile, oil specifications, food-to-oil ratio and fry life were tested. Researchers also sought to learn sensory changes by using a trained sensory panel and consumer preferences by using consumer testing.

The tests had a goal of using 49 non-trained panelists to conduct sensory evaluations on each type of oil. Demographic information such as sex, age, occupation and nationality were requested of each panelist along with how many times they ate french fries in the past 30 days. Consumer testing was done on frying day No. 2. Each consumer evaluated at least three oils.

A trained sensory panel started testing samples each frying day starting on day No. 6. Researchers planned to use the same number of trained panelists for each type of oil. Results for the frying oils tested may be found at

Getting the trans fat-free formulation right should rank as a high priority, said Mr. Marks of Focus on Food. He pointed out once a company makes a trans fat-free claim on a product, it could damage the company’s image if it had to revert back to the original product with trans fat.

Supply plays a factor in trans fat solutions

Formulators may choose from a variety of oils when creating products free of trans fat. Unfortunately, they may find the ideal blend may involve several types of oils, and not all the oils may be in abundant supply. The supply situation thus may cause problems, especially for larger food manufacturers and quick-service restaurant chains, said Ron Marks, president of Focus on Food, Atlanta.

"I really think it’s going to get a lot tougher over the next 12 to 18 months," he said of oil supply.

Increasing supply of low-linolenic soybean oil has made news, and oils from other sources are gaining in volume, too:

● The Canola Council of Canada, Winnipeg, Man., promotes a "Canola ... growing great 2015" plan to take the Canadian canola industry to 15 million tonnes of sustained market demand and production. It was more than 8 million tonnes in 2006. A high-stability canola may be used to make margarines, baked goods and in deep frying without hydrogenation. Canola oil’s saturated fat content is about 7%.

● The United States annually has produced about 877 million lbs of cottonseed oil over the past five years, according to the National Cottonseed Products Association, Cordova, Tenn. Cottonseed oil is naturally stable without hydrogenation. It’s about 70% unsaturated fatty acids and 26% saturated fatty acids.

● NuSun sunflower oil is stable without partial hydrogenation, according to the National Sunflower Association, Bismarck, N.D. It’s estimated 70% of the 2.2 million total sunflower oilseed acres planted were NuSun in 2005.

Heart association seeks to keep saturated fat intake from growing

While trans fat issues receive their share of headlines, the American Heart Association remains aware of saturated fats, as does the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom.

The A.H.A.’s web site recently added a "Face the Fats" section, which includes "The Bad Fats Brothers" in reference to trans fat and saturated fat. It warns, "Don’t let them break your heart!" One cartoon on the web site shows the brothers getting kicked out of an eating establishment called "Joe’s Place." Last June in its diet and lifestyle recommendations, the association gave goals of limiting saturated fat to 7% and trans fat to under 1% of total calorie intake.

The new "Face the Fats" web site section is divided into three parts — Fats 101, My Fats Translator and Live Fat-Sensibly.

Fats 101 is presented in question-and-answer format. It explains the four major fats in the food that humans eat as saturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. One question asks if all foods labeled as "trans fat-free" are healthy.

"Not necessarily," the association answers. "Foods labeled ‘trans fat-free’ or cooked with ‘trans fat-free’ oils may contain a lot of saturated fats, which raise your bad cholesterol levels.

"‘Trans fat-free’ foods may also be unhealthy in terms of their general nutrient content. For example, baked goods tend to be high in added sugars and low in nutrients."

Live Fat-Sensibly offers tips on reading food labels, grocery shopping, cooking, snacking, eating out and eating fast food. Celebrity chef Alton Brown, who was the keynote speaker at the American Society of Baking’s "BakingTech 2007" in March, gives tips on cooking healthy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Food Standards Agency has published a consultation to explore ways of reducing the average amount of saturated fat in people’s diets. The agency seeks views in four areas:

● Making people more aware and improving understanding of healthy eating, particularly the effects of too much saturated fat;

● Encouraging manufacturers to increase availability of smaller portion sizes;

● Helping to make sure healthier, reduced saturated fat alternatives are more available; and

● Encouraging the food industry to look at what it is putting in its products and to make improvements by reducing saturated fat levels.

The F.S.A. will take responses until June 19.

"Current population average intakes of saturated fat exceed public health recommendations, and the rising levels of obesity indicate that energy (calorie) intakes currently exceed energy requirements," the F.S.A. said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, April 17, 2007, starting on Page 39. Click here to search that archive.

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