Trans fats remain a vague health risk for most American consumers, who will often not choose to avoid these at the expense of convenience, price and taste, according to new research.
Conducted by consumer researcher the Hartman Group, the study reveals that initiatives such as labeling requirements or banning trans fats in restaurants are likely to have only a minimal impact on consumer behavior.
But with the food industry having undergone major efforts over the past few years to remove trans fats from product formulations, the recent findings suggest room for consumer education, which would allow for more conscious purchasing behavior.
The new study, which was designed to gauge peoples' understanding of the artery clogging trans fatty acids, divided consumers into three groups according to their level of commitment to a healthy lifestyle: periphery, mid-level and core wellness consumers.
In general, consumers who are more involved in a health and wellness lifestyle (core wellness consumers) are more likely to understand the origins and the effects of trans fats, and make more efforts to read labels and avoid them. The majority of consumers, however, have only a vague and general definition of what trans fats are, and they are often unable to clearly articulate the difference between this fat and others, such as polyunsaturated fat.
A small number of periphery and mid-level consumers even believe that trans fats are the 'good' fats, although most understand these are 'bad' fats, but do not necessarily know why.
Where consumers do associate trans fats with a health risk, the concerns most typically cited are heart disease and weight gain, although the association remains "weak and murky".
Trans fat is formed when liquid oils are partially hydrogenated in order to make them into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine. The process increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods, and therefore provided an attractive option for the food industry, which displaced natural solid fats and liquid oils in many areas of food processing.
However, these fats have been found to raise blood levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol. And when too much 'bad' cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain resulting in atherosclerosis, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.
According to the Hartman Group, most consumers associate trans fats with snack foods (such as potato chips), fast food (such as French fries) and margarine.
But the group's findings also reveal that concern about trans fats generally does not determine the types of products people choose to consume.
"There are many other factors such as price, convenience and taste that generally exert greater influence on the decision-making of periphery and mid-level wellness consumers," said the Hartman Group, adding that those consumers least likely to follow a healthy lifestyle are generally "not sufficiently motivated to engage in any consistent avoidance strategy, even if they do believe that trans fat is bad for health."
But where people do make an effort to limit trans fat intake, this normally comes in the form of reducing consumption of fried food, with 42 percent of consumers indicating this behavior. However, this is much more common among core wellness consumers (64 percent) than among periphery consumers (23 percent).
And those people who do make efforts to avoid trans fats generally tend to do so as a result of health triggers, such as a recent diagnosis, or the presence of an existing health condition. Concern about the nutrition of one's children can also act as a key driver.