Businesses Search for Trans Fat Substitutes
There is an oil rush occurring in the United States, but not in Alaska or Texas. The search is on to develop a cooking oil that is free of trans fat but still makes tasty french fries and to sell it to restaurants, food manufacturers, and consumers who have recently acquired a new fear: the health risk of consuming even small quantities of trans fat.
Most of the trans fats we eat today are industrially created by partial hydrogenation of plant oils, which makes fats more stable at room temperature. Starting last year, the Food and Drug Administration required that all food nutrition labels list the amount of trans fat in products, directly under the line for saturated fat. It was the first significant change to the nutrition facts list since it was established in 1993.
The change resulted in a huge increase in awareness that consumption of trans fat raises "bad" LDL cholesterol and increases the risk of coronary heart disease. That culminated with the New York City Board of Health's vote last month to require all city restaurants to stop serving foods containing artificial trans fat by July 1, 2008. This week, Starbucks announced it would immediately eliminate trans fats from baked goods in half its 5,600 company-owned U.S. stores and eventually in all of them. The FDA estimates that by 2009 trans fat labeling will have prevented up to 1,200 cases of coronary heart disease and 500 deaths each year.
The war on trans fats is forcing companies to adapt or get out of the way. ACH Food Cos., whose brand-name oil, shortening, and cooking spray products include Bake Rite, Mrs. Tucker, and Mazola, is not spending significantly more on product development, but it is modifying its product development process. "In the past we focused on taste profiles, texture, and product performance, but we're shifting some of the emphasis now toward ... new trans fat alternatives," says CEO Dan Antonelli.
But new products won't necessary mean new business for ACH Food. "I would say that for the most part these have been replacement sales as opposed to brand-new revenue," Antonelli says. "In order to replace trans fat, you have to come up with a variety of solutions, all of which today are more expensive than the current partially hydrogenated solutions."
The surge in consumer demand, while a headache for industry giants, has caused a boom in business for smaller, niche oil companies. The nine-year-old Carolina Soy Products, which makes Whole Harvest soybean oil, reports a 60 percent sales increase in the past year, which CEO Bob Dawson credits to "all the stress on no trans fat." Kirk Scarborough, president of California Rice Oil Co., says, "We're probably looking at at least 50 percent growth in the next year easily," which he also attributes to trans fat awareness.
Mix and match
Larger oil producers are developing customized trans-fat-free formulations, for food manufacturers and other customers, that taste best in a specific food item. "We look at how we can blend oil to get the right taste profile, the right nutrition profile, the right functionality, and each one winds up being unique," says Stephanie Childs, a spokesperson for ConAgra, whose brands include Pam and Wesson. "When you look at ways to reduce or eliminate partially hydrogenated oil, there is no single solution that will work for everyone in every category."
A great deal of science goes into almost all the new trans-fat-free products on the market to make the reformulations taste similar to the original. "We may blend a corn oil with a cottonseed oil to achieve a certain characteristic that they're looking for," says Mark Matlock, senior vice president of research at Archer Daniels Midland, which developed the NovaLipid line of zero and low trans fat oils and shortenings. "The blends of oils are ways to deliver the amount of stability that they need at the lowest cost."
Stability of the fats is necessary to cook crisp french fries in frying vats or bake cookies with a six-month shelf lifestability that comes with a price tag. "A lot of these naturally stable oils are more expensive than the partially hydrogenized traditionally used," says Matlock. But almost all of the new alternatives are better for your health. Says Matlock: "We are simply moving on to the next generation of even healthier fats."