Disappearing Act
By Kathie Canning
Recipes have been reformulated, and new labeling requirements are in place — but the trans fat issue persists.
Over the past several years, Americans have been inundated with information about trans fatty acids (trans fats), those dreaded partially hydrogenated oils that we now know wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system. All the while, food processors — the snack food and baking sectors, in particular — scrambled to rework recipes to reduce or eliminate these fats. After all, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Jan. 1, 2006, deadline for listing trans fats on product Nutrition Facts labels was looming.
Now that the FDA’s long-anticipated trans fat labeling requirements are in effect, the trans fat problem can be put to rest — right?
Wrong. When it comes to trans fats in baked goods, a number of sticky issues persist.
Compliance Hurdles
Thanks to shipping impacts related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as surplus packaging issues, some baked goods producers had indicated they would have trouble complying with the January 1 deadline. This past December, the American Bakers Association (ABA) asked FDA for enforcement discretion (see p. 36 of the November issue of SF&WB).
On December 30, FDA published an addendum indicating that the agency would consider enforcement discretion for companies that had submitted extension requests before December 31 for products with 0.5 gm. or less of trans fats per serving.
“ABA was pleased to see that that an additional addendum was published,” says Lee Sanders, ABA’s senior vice president, government relations and public affairs. “ABA has worked diligently since the September 2005 OMB Notice was published, asking for input on a potential extension. Through two sets of comments to FDA asking for a blanket extension for the industry for all products, additional calls to FDA and spearheading a meeting with OMB with other like-minded organizations in December, ABA is confident that it did all it could — giving our best shot to help remedy the situation for our industry.”
According to Sanders, all but an average of 3% of baking industry packaging was set to meet the January 1 compliance date. The majority of these products constitute private label and seasonal products — mostly bread and bun items with 0.5 gm. or less of trans fat.
“Nonetheless, the sheer volume of product is overwhelming,” Sanders says. “Over 300 letters seeking extensions were submitted to FDA, so that gives you an idea of the numbers we are talking about.
“FDA intends to consider its enforcement discretion for such products subject to a pending request until the agency has responded to the company concerning the request,” she continues. “This addendum to the guidance does not apply to those who request extensions for labeling postmarked after December 31, 2005, or who have submitted a request for an extension that FDA has denied.”
Wait and See
Regulatory compliance is just one of the challenges. Many companies — both those with new formulas and those opting to let trans fats come out on the label — are taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to consumer acceptance.
“The snack food industry has been relatively successful in finding alternatives to trans fat-containing mediums,” says Robert Reeves, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Shortening & Edible Oils, Inc. “They include naturally stable oils, such as corn, cottonseed and high oleic canola oils.”
On the other hand, says Reeves, the baking industry often requires something with a higher solids content, such as shortening, to provide the right texture, functionality and other attributes.
“In those instances where the functionality of original products has not been duplicated successfully,” says Reeves, “some manufacturers have not changed their ingredients or cooking mediums to avoid sudden changes in product characteristics which could lead to potential losses in consumer acceptability. Perhaps one-fourth to one-third of bakery products have not been reformulated due to the difficulties in finding acceptable ingredients.”
These food manufacturers might “test” the marketplace to see whether consumers react to the new labels listing trans fat content, says Reeves. Moreover, they might opt not to reformulate if they determine there is no loss of consumer acceptance.
“This will be particularly true with products for which alternative ingredients have been difficult to acquire,” he stresses. “These manufacturers may be unwilling to gamble on slightly altered characteristics of products that have had long-term consumer acceptance. They may also prefer not to purchase replacement ingredients if they involve higher prices due to the sophisticated, and sometimes more costly, processing procedures required to prepare them.”
On the other side of the coin, bakers that have reformulated recipes successfully also might be subject to consumer backlash. The two primary candidates for the replacement of higher-solids fats containing trans fats are naturally stable oils, such as palm oil and interesterified oils, both of which are associated with at least some degree of cardiovascular controversy.
A recent multi-disciplinary roundtable comprising academia, cardiology, nutrition and manufacturing experts — and chaired by Dr. Dennis Bier, professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center — weighed the replacement options for hydrogenated fats and trans fats in baked goods. Although the roundtable was sponsored by Loders Croklaan, the company did not participate.
“We believed that the food industry was probably confused about what their best options were going forward, and that was the reason that we did this,” notes Dr. Reyn Archer, a public health physician and former Texas Commissioner of Health who served as a project consultant.
Studies reviewed by the panel indicated that trans fats increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in humans and, at high levels of consumption, also lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels, Archer says. Studies also showed that palm oil, a saturated fat with a high level of palmitic acid, also raised LDL levels. However, it also was found to raise HDL levels slightly.
“What the studies showed is that you’re going to increase HDL at about a quarter of the rate that you increase LDL, which could be good,” says Archer. “But some scientists would say that you would have to be careful about making claims that saturated fats increase HDL.”
The panel also looked at coconut oil — another naturally occurring saturated fat — and interesterified liquid oils, which are high in stearic acid.
“Coconut oil has a higher price point that makes it less likely to be used,” Archer says. “Interesterified oils [start with] a liquid oil, are fully hydrogenated and become like a wax. Then you interesterify it with a liquid oil, and it becomes more like a trans fat — in other words, it has the solid softer functionality that is more like a shortening.”
Although interesterified oils do not raise LDL or HDL levels, says Archer, one study showed that high levels of interesterified stearic acid resulted in biomarkers for inflammation. These biomarkers also are associated with cardiovascular disease.
In the end, the panel determined that what they knew about palm oil was more than they knew about interesterified oils in terms of long-term cardiovascular implications, says Archer.
The panel also determined that both palm oil and interesterified oils were “reasonable options” for trans fats, but could not recommend one over the other. However, the group also concluded that “the long-term risks or benefits of using naturally occurring saturated fats versus interesterified fats in the food supply is not known.”
So it would seem that the controversy will only continue — and that additional research on the effects of various trans fats replacers, particularly interesterified oils, should be expected. A certain amount of consumer confusion and anxiety also is to be expected as these and other trans fats replacers hit the shelves.
As the fat and oils industry develops and tweaks new technologies, reformulations of existing reformulations might become a reality — and baked goods manufacturers that have taken no action on trans fats might also find a solution.
“The edible fat and oils industry has worked diligently for many years developing new technologies for processing which will not generate trans fats,” stresses Reeves. “New oilseed variety development is likely to be an efficient answer to many product reformulations, since these oils will be inherently stable without the additional use of processing procedures. Additional beneficial characteristics — for example, lower saturates — may be incorporated into these new oilseed varieties.” SF&WB