By Anne Ford
Due to negative consumer reaction, the government, health advocacy groups, foodservice chains, and snack and bakery suppliers are scampering to meet new deadlines to get rid of trans fats altogether.
In the race to eliminate what many experts call dangerously unhealthy trans fats, the foodservice industry is a step behind retail food manufacturers. Make that several steps. Okay, maybe miles behind what consumers see in snack and bakery aisles.
Americans have been noshing on trans fat-free or 0 g. trans fat versions of snacks such as Kraft Foods’ Oreos, Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish and Frito-Lay’s Doritos for at least a year. For products such as bread, it has been more than three years.
Only more recently have many major restaurant chains committed to removing trans fats from their menus. That fact may stick in the craw of nutrition-minded consumers and health advocacy organizations. After all, the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that removing trans fats from the industrial food supply could save tens of thousands of lives each year. It’s a problem easier said than solved.
“I don’t think for a moment that there’s less desire to solve the problem on the part of foodservice companies,” says Richard Galloway, president of Galloway and Associates and an advisor to the board of Qualisoy, a soybean industry initiative. “It’s just a more difficult issue to solve.”
That’s in part because the fat that restaurants use to fry food must have a higher degree of stability at high temperatures than the fat in, as Galloway says, “a cookie that’s going to sit in a package for three months.” Trans fat, in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, can stand up to those heavy-duty applications, whereas some of the fats that have replaced it in prepackaged products cannot.
Moreover, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil — which is solid at room temperature — is a key ingredient in making baked goods such as croissants and pie crusts so flaky, rich and delicious. In most of those products, nonhydrogenated liquid oil just doesn’t produce the necessary texture.
However, that’s not the only reason the foodservice industry has been slower to eliminate trans fats. For one thing, retail food manufacturers have been under the gun for a longer period of time. In mid-2003, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would require them to list trans fats on packages’ nutrition fact panels by Jan. 1, 2006.
By comparison, not until December 2006, when the New York City Board of Health voted to ban trans fat in the city’s restaurants — and the state of Massachusetts began threatening to follow suit — did foodservice chains and their suppliers really begin feeling the pressure to find substitutions.
Foodservice Still Not There
Before then, many in the foodservice industry “took a wait-and-see attitude,” says Gerald McNeill, director of research and development for Loders Croklaan. “All the fads have come and gone — low-fat, Atkins and so on. People put a lot of money into those for nothing. However, it’s clear now that this isn’t some kind of fad. It’s here to stay.”
Nearly every day brings news of another chain succumbing to ban-the-trans pressure. Starbucks, the Cheesecake Factory, Ruby Tuesday’s, KFC, Wendy’s, Au Bon Pain, Panera Bread and Taco Bell all have announced efforts to reduce or eliminate products that use partially hydrogenated oils. Even the Walt Disney Co. and hotel chains Marriott International, Loews and Omni have made the move. Others operators such as industry leaders McDonald’s and Burger King report that they still are testing trans fat-free oils.
So if trans fats are coming out of products, what exactly should go in? That’s what shortening and oil suppliers are figuring out.
Complicating matters is the versatility of the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil they’re trying to replace and the higher price of some trans fat replacers.
“By just tweaking the conditions in hydrogenation,” McNeill says, “you can make all different kinds of fats” that are suitable for all different kinds of products. Ideally, he adds, a substitute fat would be similarly versatile. It also would be as cheap and plentiful as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
As it happens, at least one option — palm oil — is a good choice, even though it might not be the perfect one. Although it is an easy substitute for trans fats, palm oil has had a dubious reputation in the United States since the 1980s, when the public became more conscious of the dangers of saturated fats, including those found in palm and other tropical oils. Ironically, those oils were replaced by partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Now palm oil is returning, albeit to a mixed reception.
“Palm was well-marketed and positioned as being a very slick and easy and cost-effective transition, so palm oil solutions became kind of the quick and easy choice,” says Rob Kirby, president of the Nexcel Natural Ingredients division of Spectrum Foods.
By substituting palm oil for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, he adds, bakers and snack manufacturers can market their products as “trans fat-free.” That could lead consumers to think they’re eating a significantly healthier food, when in fact they’re potentially consuming a greater amount saturated fat, which the American Heart Association calls the “main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol.”
Kirby isn’t sure consumers are aware that if they replace trans fats with palm oil and other saturated fats, they’ve traded what he says is “bad for a little less bad, not really bad for good.”
Good Palm, Bad Palm
However, some industry suppliers insist that palm oil’s unhealthy reputation is unwarranted.
“The more people get to know and understand palm, they realize it is not necessarily evil,” says Ed Wilson, sales and marketing director for AarhusKarlshamn USA. AarhusKarlshamn manufactures the EsSence line of products, which blends palm oil with other, nonhydrogenated vegetable oils and can be used in applications including pie crusts and puff pastry.
McNeill goes one step farther. While he agrees that no one should sit down and dig into a heaping bowlful of saturated fat every morning, “the science shows that a one-to-one substitution of trans fat with saturated fats is healthier,” he says. “There’s a reduction in your risk of heart disease.”
Loders Croklaan, he notes, produces the SansTrans line of shortenings and oils, of which the best seller is SansTrans 39, a soft shortening for cakes and vegetable dairy products. The company recently launched SansTrans RS39 T20, which has a slightly higher price, but has 30% less saturated fat than San Trans 39.
Still, Galloway remains skeptical of palm oil and other highly saturated fats.
“Can lard be far behind?” he asks, rhetorically.
Companies affiliated with Qualisoy, such as Pioneer and Bunge, are focusing instead on developing soybean products with excellent stability and a long shelf life, thus eliminating the need for hydrogenation. That’s partially because soybean oil is low in saturated fat, as are canola, safflower and sunflower oils.
One such trans fat replacement can be low-linolenic soybean oil. This variety of oil is produced from seeds that have been bred to contain lower levels of linolenic acid, which decreases soybean oil’s stability and makes it more vulnerable to spoilage.
“This oil is very functional in packaged food products that require shelf life enhancement, for light-duty frying applications, and many more applications that previously utilized partially hydrogenated oil,” says Galloway says, adding that some bakery products could utilize low-lin, as well.
KFC and the Kellogg Co. are two companies that have replaced partially hydrogenated vegetable oil with low-linolenic soybean oil in many products.
Low-linolenic soybean brands include Vistive from Monsanto, Pioneer, and Asoyia, which make an ultra-low-linolenic version. At the moment, demand is outstripping supply. Qualisoy estimates that more than 1 billion lb. of low-linolenic oil could be available this year, but more is needed.
“Customers of the soybean industry are frustrated that more soy-based solutions are not already available and that more low-lin soy is not available,” Galloway notes. “All of this takes time.”
Qualisoy-affiliated companies also are developing mid- to high-oleic soybean oils. The seeds that produce these oils are genetically modified to contain higher levels of oleic acid, a naturally occurring substance that helps stabilize the oil and, thus, avoid hydrogenation.
The high-oleic soybean oil is “actually ready for commercialization,” Galloway says, but “it’s undergoing the regulatory process, which is very lengthy. The company that’s farthest along on that is Pioneer.”
The good news is that high- and mid-oleic sunflower oil and mid-oleic canola oil are already on the market.
Creating Flexible Alternatives
Even companies that don’t produce oil or shortening are striving to offer solutions to the trans fat problem. Take Tate and Lyle, which offers the Meripro 430 wheat protein for sandwich cookies and crackers. Doris Dougherty, senior food scientist at Take and Lyle, says the product “is designed to allow use of 100% vegetable oil. So this product would not have saturated fats [and] would not have trans fats.”
Meanwhile, Tate and Lyle’s Rebalance 706 product is aimed at the bakery market because “it contains polydextrose, which is many times used in lower-fat formulations,” Dougherty says. In addition, the company’s recently launched Enrich ingredient line offers a filling system that can be used with nonhydrogenated oil.
While foodservice operators are taking many different approaches, there is one fundamental issue they all face: satisfying consumers’ taste buds. Regardless of how pleased consumers might be to know that, say, the doughnuts they buy at the corner bakery every morning are trans-fat-free, they won’t keep buying them if they don’t taste as good as before.
“I think we’re going to have to decide in some cases, do we sacrifice taste and flavor for a different formulation?” Galloway says.
After all, food memory is a powerful force.
“I can remember my mother baking biscuits with Crisco,” he says nostalgically. “Man, that’s good stuff.”