Trans fats market loses its sizzle

With the Food and Drug Administration?s Jan 1, 2006, deadline approaching for the mandatory labelling of trans fats present in US foodstuffs, the momentum against hydrogenated fat forms is growing. Food makers are opting to remove them from products altogether, rather than risk the wrath of an increasingly wary public.

Nestle, Unilever, McDonald?s, Campbell?s and Pepsi/Frito-Lay are just some of the major food companies to announce trans fat reduction programmes, both in the US and in other markets. Frito-Lay has removed trans fats from all of its US brands.

Now the city of New York has stepped into the fray by urging its 26,000-odd restaurants to remove trans fats from their menu items. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has begun warning restaurants of the health hazards of trans fat consumption — such as raised cholesterol levels and heart problems — and suggesting ways they can be replaced by healthier oils. Supermarkets and food suppliers are also being targeted in the drive.

The action was welcomed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Executive director Michael Jacobson, who said it is ?unique, creative and likely to be effective,? and ?ought to be emulated by every other health department in the country.? The CSPI also called for the GRAS status of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to be revoked.

However, some parties have questioned the demonisation of trans fats. The National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute have all stated that trans fats are no worse than saturated fats like butter or lard, noting all should be consumed in moderation, and saturated fat consumption was the greater problem. Even the FDA states on its website that, ?Trans fat, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises the LDL cholesterol that increases your risk for CHD. Americans consume on average four to five times as much saturated fat as trans fat in their diets.?

Some observers have noted that the artificial hydrogenation process used in the production of many trans fats creates a negative connotation in the minds of consumers. High fructose corn syrup has suffered a similar backlash despite the fact it is similar in composition to cane sugar. One independent dietary fat and cholesterol researcher said trans fats were an ?easy whipping boy.?

Jacobson questioned this interpretation. ?I don?t think they?re reading the evidence correctly on just how harmful trans fat is,? he said. ?Last year an FDA advisory committee said explicitly that trans fat was worse than saturated fat. It?s not just the effect on cholesterol levels. Trans fat appears to have other effects on the epithelial functioning of the arteries, and the different kinds of LDL that it creates.?

Regardless, the anti-trans fats climate is presenting opportunities for ingredients suppliers who are coming to the fore with a suite of new oils that deliver trans-free fats without compromising on taste, texture or shelf life. Bunge, ADM, Cargill, Danisco, Cerestar and Loders Croklaan are just some vendors with offerings.

Denmark was the first country to formally restrict trans fats use, implementing a rule in 2003 that only two per cent of the fats in any food could be trans fats, which virtually eliminated the ingredient. Canada has passed similar legislation and measures are being proposed in other parts of the world.

Trans fats are typically used in biscuits, snacks, margarines, pastries and other foods to enhance shelf life and texture.

The FDA?s new guidelines

  • Manufacturers of conventional foods and some dietary supplements will be required to list trans fat on a separate line, immediately under saturated fats, on the nutrition label.
  • Food manufacturers have until Jan 1, 2006, to list trans fats on the label. The phase-in period minimises the need for multiple labelling changes, allows small businesses to use current label inventories and provides financial savings.
  • The FDA?s regulatory chemical definition for trans fatty acids is all unsaturated fatty acids that contain one or more isolated (ie, nonconjugated) double bonds in a trans configuration. Under the agency?s definition, conjugated linoleic acid would be excluded from the definition of trans fats.
  • Dietary supplements manufacturers must also list trans fats on the Supplement Facts panel when their products contain reportable amounts (0.5g or more). Examples of dietary supplements with trans fats are energy and nutrition bars.

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