Lost in Translation
Consumers are armed with a zero-tolerance policy for trans fat that is quickly becoming the food industry’s steamiest scandal.
By Maria Pilar Clark
The year of the carb is over. Stick a fork in it, because it’s done. As the “Age of Trans” approaches, low-carb is quickly going stale. Due in part to the federal government’s new dietary guidelines, the food industry is bracing itself for a new-and-improved consumer — one who is more health-savvy about packaged foods and focused on balanced nutrition, moderation, quality and cost. Label reading could become the new art form as consumers face a rainbow of new products, armed with a zero-tolerance policy for trans fat that is quickly becoming the food industry’s steamiest scandal.
Bakers and snack manufacturers still are digesting the news as trans fat-heavy oils/shortenings are getting lost in translation. Many producers, such as Kraft Foods, Pepperidge Farm and Frito-Lay, are already on the move, looking to reduce, if not eliminate, the blacklisted ingredient completely. Those manufacturers who don’t respond to growing health concerns risk losing out to those who adjust their modus operandi.
“Most food manufacturers want some, if not all of their products to read ‘0 gm. trans fat’ on their nutrition panels,” says Ed McIntosh, marketing communications manager for Loders Croklaan.
As expected, various companies are rolling up their sleeves and gritting their teeth in preparation for the race to reduce trans fat levels in their products before the New Year. As of Jan. 1, 2006, packaged food labels will have to disclose how much trans fat each serving contains, as mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Trans fat is now considered much worse than saturates, but its presence in foods has been ‘hidden’ for years,” McIntosh says. “Food products that contain trans fat on Jan. 1, 2006, are likely to attract negative attention from the media.”
The search is on for trans fat alternatives, and pressure is mounting for food manufacturers and oil/shortening suppliers alike as they ask themselves if the new labeling mandate will make a difference to consumers.
Loders Croklaan carried out three consumer surveys in the last 11/2 years and noted that consumers said they were more likely to buy a product declaring ‘no trans fat’ on the package. When shown mock-up labels with or without trans fat in the nutrition panel, roughly 50% rejected the trans fat-containing products in favor of the no trans products, even though the saturated content was higher.
“This shows many consumers correctly recognize that trans fat is more unhealthy than saturates,” McIntosh says, “and that affects their purchasing habits. Consumers pick the no-trans alternative even though the trans is replaced by an equivalent amount of saturated fat.”
Consequently, manufacturers are quickly being divided into a “naughty and nice” list, as the race is on to ban trans.
Trimming the Fat
Kellogg Co. is another one of the companies setting the precedent for trans fat-free products, reducing the sugar in its best-selling Frosted Flakes by one third. The lighter version contains 0 gm. of both trans and saturated fats. Following suit is Late July, a company formed by the founders of Cape Cod Potato Chips, Inc. and Chatham Village Foods, Inc., which has developed a line of snack crackers that are certified organic and trans fat-free.
According to ACNielsen’s LabelTrends, sales of fresh bread with a “no trans fat” label on the packaging increased sales to $245.5 million for the 52 weeks ending on Oct. 2, 2004 — a 163.5% increase from the same period last year. Along with bread, cookies labeled with the “no trans fat” label saw a rise in profits by 28.9%, adding up to $170.3 million.
Not to be left out, oil manufacturers are trimming the fat with new products. Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences LLC launched its new Natreon canola oil, a natural, highly stable oil, designed to replace partially hydrogenated oils in commercial applications. The oil is virtually trans fat-free and is the lowest in saturated fat compared to other vegetable oils currently on the market.
Moreover, the Dallas Group introduced its DALSORB Oil Purifier, which absorbs degradation components formed during frying, reducing wastage. In addition, Bunge Oils crafted a reduced-trans shortening that can be used as a drop-in replacement for both the baking and snack sectors.
Trans-free products are set to hit the marketplace like a tidal wave, sending trans fat heavyweights for cover as lighter, slimmer products pour onto grocer’s shelves, prompting consumers to check labels before purchasing.
As Lisa Katic, nutrition advisor for the Snack Food Association, notes, “The International Food Information Council conducted consumer research to test the impact of trans fat label information on consumer choices … [and] found that consumers rely on many factors like calories, total fat, sodium and saturated fat to determine a food’s overall healthfulness. When educated about the effects of trans fat on health, consumers chose foods more often that did not contain trans fat.”
The snack food industry has long supported the listing of trans fat on food labels. However, a major concern is that consumers will single out trans fat as an ingredient to avoid while potentially increasing their intake of saturated fat. Although it is important to consider health when making food choices, trans fat should be kept in context. The total fat count is what really matters in the end, as opposed to just one type of fat over another.
Katic notes that food manufacturers have decreased the amount of trans fatty acids in products significantly.
“The snack food industry specifically has eliminated about 50 million lbs. of trans fats by altering types of oils that are used to make potato chips and other snack foods,” she says. “As new oils with no or lower trans fat profiles are made available to the food industry, we will see an even greater decrease in the amount of trans fats used in food processing.”
Food manufacturers and oil suppliers face the challenge of how to make the transition from trans to trans-free without losing product integrity.
State of Transition
Consumers, as well, face their own challenges. No matter how you slice it, Americans are getting plumper, chunkier and just plain big. Belt-busting waistlines have been blamed on so many underlying issues, that chubby fingers are running out of things to point to as the catalyst for the obesity epidemic facing this country and swelling into others.
But, as more and more consumers realize that waddling is out and weight watching is in, manufacturers and suppliers are getting ready to transform trans by reformulating their products to bring more healthful alternatives to market.
This transition is not without its difficulties. As the American Institute of Baking’s December 2004 “Technical Bulletin” notes, “Achieving adequate levels of performance while simultaneously reducing trans fat content in fats used for a wide variety of food applications, particularly the more demanding application, can be very challenging.”
Although a number of options are available to manufacturers, the bulletin notes that preferences are typically based on determining factors like cost, stability, functionality and preferred labeling.
Roger Daniels, director of new business development for Bunge Oils, notes that trans fat provides several product attributes that may make the reformulation process difficult.
“Many of the successful current snack and bakery products utilize partially hydrogenated oils as a major ingredient to contribute to food product structure and shelf life,” he explains. “The trans fat labeling regulation may prompt marketers to strive for products in which the reported trans fat content is minimized or eliminated. In some instances, this may necessitate replacement of the current shortening/oil system with a new shortening/oil system.”
It’s not yet known how strong consumer demand for ‘reduced-trans’ or ‘trans-free’ products is going to be, and replacement of current shortening/oil systems with new ones could subject the marketer to risk, Daniels adds.
“The risk to marketers of existing branded snack and bakery products is in disappointing consumers in one or more product driver areas,” he notes.
Finally, marketers may turn to what Daniels calls options A, B and C, which involve reformulating existing product lines to reflect “trans-reduced” or “virtually trans-free” shortening/oil use; formulating a new line extension; or simply doing nothing but relying on a particular product to be viewed as an indulgence, and something to savor.
“Market research indicates that consumers are beginning to focus on moderation and balance when making snack and bakery product choices,” he says. “In instances when an indulgent food product is desired, the consumer knows that nutrition is not his or her first priority. … When this type of eating occasion occurs, standard mainstream snack and bakery products with the full disclosure of trans fatty acids levels may be appropriate.”
According to the latest AIB bulletin, animal fats and palm oil are natural sources for shortenings and fats used in baking and frying applications. The fats are readily available, functional and economical, with stability that makes them a fitting choice for many applications.
Manufacturers who fry their products are also wrestling with how to reduce trans fat in their applications, notes Chris Abrams, business development manager for The Dallas Group of America, Inc.
“Already, producers are converting to frying oils and shortening alternatives that do not contain trans fatty acids,” Abrams says.
Although vegetable oils once were considered an inferior option because of poor functionality due to their liquid nature, advances in commercial hydrogenation have improved the properties of vegetable oils, and now they can be suitable replacements for lard and tallow.
McIntosh explains: “Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that are ‘low’ in trans [fat] have some utility where a soft fat can be used, and the use level introduces less than 0.5 gm. of trans fat per serving. However, these products carry the word ‘hydrogenation’ on the label … synonymous with ‘trans’ for the consumer.”
Hydrogenation is the addition of hydrogen atoms across the double bonds in unsaturated fatty acids. The reaction that occurs is important because it allows manufacturers to “customize” oils and fats in terms of stability and melting point. Eliminating hydrogenated oils, therefore, is a tough puzzle, Abrams says.
“The higher the degree of hydrogenation, the more stable the oil/shortening.” he explains. “By switching to non-hydrogenated liquid oils/shortenings that are low in trans fat, the producer will experience reduced useful frying oil life, resulting in more frequent oil discard, and production cost will increase.”
In terms of reducing trans fat content, the AIB bulletin notes, “Many of the oils and fats processed for the food industry have been subjected to partial hydrogenation to impart the required functionality and shelf life. However, the fats and oils industry has diligently worked to continually improve the nutritional profiles of products. Many fluidized systems, in which lightly hydrogenated or even non-hydrogenated oils replace traditional plastic products, are offered for the bakery trade.”
Beyond that, options exist for further reformulation but oftentimes result in higher levels of saturated fat and higher ingredient costs. The AIB bulletin explains “that a reduction of either category necessitates an increase in the other to maintain a solid texture. Without perfecting this balancing act, the resulting shortening will not perform in the application.”
As a result, bakers are turning to tropical oils as potential candidates in reformulations. New varieties of liquid oil that are high in oleic acid (canola or sunflower) are much more stable than their traditional counterparts, but are associated with higher cost. Liquid versions of palm oil are also highly stable but lower in cost.”
McIntosh says palm oil products are ideal for bakery applications because of their naturally solid and stable nature, providing a long shelf life for products. Their cost is also comparable to that of hydrogenated fats.
“Trans oils and palm oil share many of the same benefits for baking applications, namely long shelf life,” McIntosh notes.
The primary difference is in the health aspects. Trans fat is much worse for heart disease than saturates, so some researchers may argue that palm oil could be considered a healthier alternative. Non-hydrogenated liquid oils are the healthiest option, but they do not function in most baking applications, he says.
Although cost will remain a factor, McIntosh predicts that it will remain the same if palm oil or low trans hydrogenated oils are used for bakery applications. Those requiring additional processing or specialty high oleic oils could see a rise in cost by up to 50%.
Michael Rath, general manager for ADM Specialty Oils, says, “If there’s a major market move to providing zero trans per serving … then we will see a demand on naturally stable oils and solid fat alternatives that are low trans.”
Rath notes that naturally stable oils would include cottonseed, NuSun (sunflower) and corn.
Ultimately, bakers want to end up with a product that is “no-trans” with the same stability, texture, flavor, functionality and shelf life of their trans fat-laden counterparts.
Satisfying all of these needs will require compromises across the board as bakers already are weighing their options, making sure their products aren’t lost in translation.
Editor’s Note: For more information on trans fat, please refer to the AIB “Technical Bulletin,” December issue, titled:” Trans Fatty Acids: Changes in Technology, Labeling and Applications.” Visit www.aibonline.com.