Trans Trouble
By Kathie Canning
As the compliance deadline approaches for new trans fat labeling requirements, some companies are struggling with formulation and packaging obstacles.
Several decades ago when the food industry largely replaced fats such as butter, palm oil and lard with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, it looked like a win-win situation. After all, shelf life and flavor stability got a boost, and the dreaded “health-wrecking” duo of cholesterol and saturated fats showed up in smaller quantities on product labels.
It turns out that the swap wasn’t such a great idea after all. As the baking industry and the overall food industry are now painfully aware, the trans fatty acids that lurk within these replacements actually could be more damaging to human health than regular old saturated fats.
Many consumers, too, are worried about the amount of trans fat that might be hidden in their favorite foods. New labeling requirements for nearly all FDA-regulated food products, which go into effect on January 1, 2006, are designed to help these consumers make better-informed choices (See accompanying story on trans fat deadlines on p.36).
Although a switch back to old formulations would seem be a logical way to lose the trans fat, that solution is not an option for the myriad newer products on the market — nor is it a panacea for those bakeries looking for healthier products overall. No overall “drop-in” solution exists, and during the two-plus years since the Food and Drug Administration first announced the ruling, many bakeries have spent a considerable amount of time and money to come up with acceptable new formulations for existing products.
Others have taken no action, or are still in search of a workable solution for reducing or eliminating these disagreeable fats. Moreover, environmental issues related to existing packaging and supply concerns tied to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are creating anxiety throughout the industry.
No Quick Fix
When trans fat “comes out” on food product labels across the nation this January, zero will be the enviable number.
But as many companies already have learned, getting baked goods to that point often necessitates a considerable investment in terms of time and money.
The baking industry has been affected by the anti-trans push more than most other food sectors because many baked goods require the use of a hard fat or a semi-solid fat, notes Gerald McNeil, director of R&D and marketing for Loders Croklaan North America, Channahon, Ill.
“Indeed, it was solid fats like palm oil and butter that were replaced 20 years ago when partially hydrogenated fat came into widespread use,” he says. “Hydrogenated fats had to match the strong functionality of those fats, so in principal, just switching back to that kind of fat could be a solution in some cases.
“The problems, I think, start to arise when fats other than butter, palm oil and tallow [are used],” continues McNeil. “For example, there are low trans fats out there. Well, they’re neither hydrogenated fats as we know them today nor the solid fats with the saturates in them that were known to be functional in the past and are still functional today.”
Also problematic are some products that require a high oxidative stability such as those used in frying applications, notes Debi Rogers, director of cereal chemistry for the American Institute of Baking. In addition, cakes and other baked goods needing aeration from the fat are “challenged,” she says.
Those companies that sought solutions early in the game appear to be in the best shape.
According to Willie Loh, director of sales and marketing for Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc.’s Specialty Canola Oils business unit, these bakers and snack producers tend to be market leaders that decided exactly where they wanted to be before moving forward.
“They decided very early on that this is what their label will look like,” he says, “and then they’ve had really two and a half years to reformulate to that label. The ones that I think are still scrambling today fall into the category of those who are not sure what they want to do, and they tend to ask oil companies like us what they should do. We’re really not capable of making that decision for them.”
When it comes to food labeling, consumers are concerned about issues beyond trans fat, stresses Loh. Formulation decisions, therefore, need to be based on more than just the removal of trans fats.
“Consumers are looking at health; they’re looking at nutrition,” he says. “I don’t think a specific molecule is important to the consumer, but it’s part of the overall picture.”
The baked good producer must communicate to the fat supplier exactly what the product needs to be, Loh explains. When asked, most bakeries will say they want to get to zero trans fats, but many have not thought about the larger picture.
“The second question that needs to be answered is, ‘Do you have a target level for saturated fat?’... They need to be very specific. We can work together once we agree with what the target is,” Loh says.
Cargill offers a wide range of products to help the baking industry reduce or eliminate trans fat.
“We have all the vegetable oils, and we have all the blends available with solid shortening that can provide a whole range of solid requirements along with nutrition requirements — everything ranging from the off-shore oils to our standard vegetable oils,” notes Loh. “We are also able to produce a blend of oils, which offers what’s required to meet some very specific targets on the back of a nutritional label.
“Finally, we have a line of products — these are solid shortenings — that has no trans fat to speak of,” he says. “These we call the TransEnd line, and the line actually has much lower saturates than the existing all-purpose [shortenings], and no trans.”
Although the TransEnd line will not work for every application, notes Loh, it performs well in standard cookies, crackers and even donuts.
Loders Croklaan selected palm oil for most of its trans fat replacement solutions, says McNeil, because the oil is highly functional.
“The key to palm oil is the functionality comes from the kind of fat, saturated fat, that you get in it, which is mainly palmitic acid,” he says, “and this fatty acid forms very small crystals naturally. You don’t have to do anything special to get them, giving a very smooth texture. Also, the palmitic acid crystals are very efficient at trapping small air bubbles. ... This is very important for creaming in many baked goods, and it gives [the product] a softer texture rather than dense and chewy.”
To those who view a switch to palm oil as simply trading one “bad” fat for another, McNeil points out that the issue is not so black and white.
“Today we know that trans fat is much worse than saturated fat with risk to heart disease,” he says. “Saturated fats, as we know, increase bad cholesterol, or LDL cholesterol. What maybe not everyone knows — what you don’t hear much about in the general media — is that saturated fats also raise the good cholesterol — the HDL cholesterol.”
Although the saturated-fat-induced rise in HDL levels is not enough to fully counteract the rise in LDL levels, says McNeil, saturated fats are “perhaps not as bad as what was imagined 20 years ago” when the focus was just on LDL levels.
“On the other hand,” he says, “trans fat not only increases LDL cholesterol, but also decreases the good cholesterol. ... It’s much worse.”
Concerned that palm oil might suffer from its negative reputation of years past, Loders Croklaan commissioned a company to perform three separate consumer surveys on its behalf during the past two years.
“The surveys came back and showed that people were not concerned, and are still not concerned a year and a half later, with palm oil on the label,” says McNeil.
To meet industry demand for trans-fat-free solutions, he says, Loders Croklaan developed approximately 30 new products, re-inventing most of its popular legacy products. The company uses palm oil fractions, blending them back together in different proportions to match specific customer needs.
Loders Croklaan offers a range of palm-oil-based shortenings that run the gamut from “almost liquid” to a hard, waxy solid — and everything in between — for applications ranging from cookies and muffins to pastries to bakery coatings and more.
Meanwhile, Bunge Oils offers a number of trans alternative products and expects to have additional products in the coming years, says Roger L. Daniels, director, Bunge’s new business development.
Currently, Bunge’s Vream RightT is an all-purpose shorting suitable for pie crusts, cookies and other baked snack products. It can reduce trans fat levels by greater than 80%, Daniels notes, and lower both trans fat and saturates by 33% over its conventional product options.
Another option is Vreamay RighT, an emulsified shortening suitable for icings and cakes with the same values as Vream RighT.  Bunge’s Victor RighT can reduce trans fat by 80% in danish, Daniels notes, and lower both trans and saturated fats by greater than 25%.  SF&WB