The Trans Fat Revolution
Health and Wellness
April 30, 2007
The Trans Fat Revolution
HEALTH & WELLNESS
Starbucks is doing it. So is Jet Blue. New York City? They're doing it too.
Hoping to make the foods we consume more healthful, stores and restaurants - even cities -
across the nation are working to rid their menus of trans fats, the artery-clogging "partially
hydrogenated" fats used for frying and baking.
Now, the race is on to find healthy, affordable trans fat substitutes - and by the end of next
year. New York City, for one, plans to completely remove trans fats from all restaurant foods
by July 2008. Even McDonald's, notorious for announcing that it will eliminate trans fats frying,
will change their habits in early 2008 when they introduce a trans-fat-free vegetable oil blend
that won't change the taste of texture of their top selling item - fries. But how will these changes
affect retailers? And are these goals of creating a trans-fat-free nation even realistic?
Yes and no, says Kathleen Warner, Lead Scientist for Food and Industrial Oil Research at the
U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Food manufacturers will be substituting a wide variety of fats
and oils for trans fats, but cost and availability may limit the choices for more healthful oils," she
Although trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in foods such as milk and beef, most people
think of trans fats as the artificial fats manufactured for cooking, baking and storage purposes.
In the hydrogenation process, hydrogen molecules are added to vegetable oils producing what
is called a "trans isomer." The trans isomer in turn changes the way we metabolize fat and
increases LDL (low density lipoproteins) cholesterol - the "bad" cholesterol that clogs arteries.
However, hydrogenation also lowers the amount of polyunsaturates in the oil, making it more
stable in frying and giving it a longer shelf life. Additionally, it changes the oil from a liquid to a
plastic solid (like Crisco), which is useful in adding texture to baking products.
In order to keep solid fats solid, fats must be hydrogenated or saturated, either from tropical oils
like palm or coconut, or from animal fats like lard. That means that some food manufacturers
may have no choice but to substitute one bad fat for another - if they want to maintain taste and
consistency. And interestingly, while trans fats account for less than 2.6 percent of the calories in
our diets, says Warner, saturated fats account for 12 percent.
"Consumers have been told that trans fats are bad, even toxic, because of their negative
health effects, but there is still a lot of controversy on just how much worse trans fats are than
saturated fats," says Warner. "We need to check the labels for both fats before making food
buying decisions. The most healthful oils are always going to be liquid at room temperature."
Warner recommends that, when possible, trans fat substitutes should come from oils that
are "mid-oleic" or "high-oleic" - known to consumers as "healthful" monounsaturated fats.
Unfortunately though, because they are grown in smaller quantities, oils containing oleic acid,
such as high-oleic sunflower or safflower and mid-oleic sunflower, tend to be more expensive
than commodity oils like soy, sunflower and corn. Interesterified fats, or fats that are a
combination of two fats blended to produce good cooking properties, are popular in Europe, but
are also expensive. A third technique that may be more reasonable, says Warner, is the blending
of oil with solid fats to make products like stick margarine.
Even with these challenging restrictions, trans fat elimination is proving to be a sound possibility
on the store level. In 2003, for example, Whole Foods Market worked closely with manufacturers
to reformulate all branded products, making them the first retail operation to completely
eliminate trans fats from the shelves (their private label was conceived as hydrogenated free
from the get go). Another retailer, Wegmans Food Markets, will reformulate all packaged bakery
cookies by the end of 2007, and plans to remove trans fats from all Wegmans own branded
products sometime in the near future. Others are sure to follow.
Amy Schaefer, spokesperson for Whole Foods Market, says that eliminating trans fats from every
product is an important step in continuing to stay ahead of issues that affect shoppers. "It is
exciting to see an increasing dialogue about food quality and ingredients," she adds, "especially
in this time of mounting concerns about health, nutrition, and obesity."