Disappearance of trans fats drives innovation

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Trans fats, Trans fat, Hydrogenation

The need to replace trans fats in food and beverages has spurred innovations within the industry, from new products to oilseed crop development, a new report said.

The food industry has responded strongly to recent label regulations for trans fats, as well as trans fat bans and companies are reformulating packaged foods and finding substitutes for restaurant fry oils, it claimed.

Now trans fats are disappearing from the US food supply, according to the report “Getting rid of trans fats in the US diet: Policies, incentives and progress”​ which is accepted for publication in the Food Policy journal.

The report said: “Many applications, such as fried fast foods, are rapidly finding substitutes for partially hydrogenated oils. Applications that are difficult to address, such as pastry, are currently the focus of research and development, and thus solutions are likely to appear within a relatively short period of time.

“It took decades for use of partially hydrogenated oils to expand throughout the food industry, but it seems likely that they will be removed from the food supply within only a few years.”

The report said that federal nutrition label regulation enacted in 2003 requires mandatory disclosure of trans fat content on packaged foods. There have also been bans on trans fat use in restaurants in cities including New York and lawsuits against food companies which created further incentives.

The estimated one-time industry costs for testing, re-labeling, and reformulation is put between $139 and $275 million, according to the authors.

Trans fats in the diet are mainly formed during the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil that converts the oil into semi-solids for a variety of food applications.

They provide extended shelf life and flavor stability. However, it is widely accepted that they are linked to health risks, predominantly cardiovascular disease, and studies have also shown links to prostate cancer.

On average people in the US consume 5.6 grams of trans fats per day compared with 2.4g in the EU. The main sources are cakes, margarine, cookies, fried foods and snacks.

Finding alternatives

The report said that the process of reformulation and replacement has “spurred innovations that reach all the way back to oilseed crop development”.

It added: “The applications of modern biotechnology to development of improved oilseeds with hearthealthy oil profiles may be the first major breakthrough in providing innovations with consumer benefit."

But the authors state: “The pace of activity is naturally slowed by the complicated process of finding alternatives for specific uses and the subsequent need to secure supplies or equipment, or to implement change on a large scale.”

One example is in 2007, an estimated 1.5 million acres of low linoleic soybeans were planted, producing about 1 billion pounds of low lin-oleic oil.

Although this represents a large increase in acreage over nearly two years, it is small relative to an estimated three billion pounds of partially hydrogenated oils currently used just in food service.

The report adds: “Industry sources posit a three year lag is necessary to meet the rapidly expanding demand for this type of oil. This type of lag accounts for the announcements from many food service companies and some packaged food companies that promise future replacement of trans fats, but do not specify an immediate change.”

Meanwhile, in June 2007, the Government of Canada called on industry to voluntarily reduce the levels of trans fat in the Canadian food supply to the levels recommended by the Trans Fat Task Force.

That is a trans fat limit of two percent of the total fat content for all vegetable oils and soft, spreadable margarines, and a limit of five percent of the total fat content for all other foods, including ingredients sold to restaurants.

Food Policy (Elsevier) (online ahead of print)

DOI:10.1016/j.foodpol.2008.05.006

“Getting rid of trans fats in the US diet: Policies, incentives and progress”Authors: Laurian J. Unnevehr and Evelina Jagmanaite

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