Trans Fat Trumped
By Lisa White
With the spotlight on the dangers of trans fat, the meat and poultry industry has begun reducing and phasing out hydrogenated oils.
First it was sugar that was the culprit, so “sugar-free” became the trend. More recently, U.S. consumers took heavy interest into how harmful carbohydrates were to the waistline, and, consequently, there was a proliferation of low-carb foods.
The most recent enemy that has been singled out is trans fat. It has become so much the enemy of consumers that New York City Board of Health voted on Dec. 5, 2006, to ban trans fat from any use in city restaurants after July 2008 (trans fat-containing frying oils would have to be eliminated by July 2007), and the City of Chicago at presstime reportedly was considering introducing a law limiting restaurant use of trans fats.
Scientific evidence shows that consumption of saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol raises the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad cholesterol,” which increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, more than 12.5 million Americans have CHD, and more than 500,000 die of the disease each year. This makes CHD one of the leading causes of death in the nation.
FDA’s regulatory chemical definition for trans fatty acids is all unsaturated fatty acids that contain one or more isolated double bonds in a trans configuration. Under the definition, conjugated linoleic acid is excluded from the definition of trans fat.
In layman’s terms, trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil — a process called hydrogenation. This increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing these fats.
Trans fat can be found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. (Although many manufacturers of snack and bakery products have been in the same boat as protein processors, attempting to find ways to eliminate the trans fat in their products.) Unlike other fats, the majority of trans fat is formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine. A small amount of trans fat is found naturally, primarily in some animal-based foods.
The FDA estimates that the average daily intake of trans fat in the U.S. population is about 5.8 grams, or 2.6 percent of calories per day, for individuals 20 years of age and older. On average, Americans consume approximately four to five times as much saturated fat as trans fat in their diet.
Due to the health risks, the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat on Nutrition Facts panels beginning January 1, 2006. Food manufacturers are allowed to list amounts of trans fat with less than 0.5 gram as zero grams. The USDA has not yet made this labeling rule mandatory. (See accompanying sidebar for more information).
In the meat industry, trans fat typically is found in breaded, fried and further-processed items, depending on the oil used, says Steve Pretanik, director of science and technology for the National Chicken Council, based in Washington, D.C.
“Trans fat is an issue when partially hydrogenated oils or shortening are used,” he explains. “To get around this, many companies have been switching to cooking oils that reduce trans fat, such as vegetable oils that have not been hydrogenated.”
Chains up for challenge
Even the nation’s largest fast-food chains have been caught up in the trans fat fallout. This past fall, Arby’s announced its eateries will no longer serve french fries with trans fats. By May 1, 2007, 75 percent of its menu items will contain less than half a gram of trans fat.
Probably one of the most surprising switches was made by fried chicken legend KFC, part of YUM! Brands restaurant group. In October 2006, following a two-year review of alternative oils, this chain initiated a nationwide transition to cooking oil with zero trans fat. This will reduce the amount of trans fat content in all of its fried food, including its signature Original Recipe and Extra Crispy chicken, and more than 65 other menu items in its 5,500 locations.
The chain worked with a number of companies that were offering zero-trans oil products to evaluate and extensively test options in an effort to find an oil product that met the goal. These included products made from traditional soybean-based oil, as well as canola- and corn-based products.
This effort involved a wide array of KFC personnel, including oil experts, nutritionists, research and development teams, public relations and top-level management.
Eventually, a new breed of soybean, called Vistive, was developed by the Monsanto Corp., which had been working towards developing low-linolenic soybeans that produce zero-trans oils. These soybeans contain less than three percent linolenic acid, compared to eight percent for traditional soybeans, resulting in a more stable soybean oil with a better flavor profile and less need for hydrogenation. Because soybeans with less linolenic acid reduce or eliminate the need for partial hydrogenation, trans fats in processed soybean oil can be reduced or eliminated.
Initial testing for taste and quality was conducted in the KFC kitchens. These tests also explored whether changes in preparation or ingredients would be needed to introduce the new zero-trans oil to the KFC restaurants.
The process for converting the restaurants from using low-trans oil to zero-trans was similar to changing to any other oil. No equipment change was necessary in the restaurants, and oil procedures continued to be the same as they were before the conversion.
Although planting of low-linolenic soybeans began in 2004, sufficient supplies to produce the oil have only recently become available. In 2007, it is estimated that 1.5 million acres of these soybeans will be planted to accommodate the transition.
Also under the YUM! Brands umbrella, Taco Bell also announced it was cutting trans fats from its menu last fall. The chain’s spokesperson, Rob Poetsch, says 4,200 of the company’s 5,800 restaurants will convert to a new trans fat-free canola oil produced by The Dow Chemical Co. by April of 2007. The remaining multi-brand outlets, which also incorporate KFC, will use the low-linolenic soybean oil. Before the switch, Taco Bell tested a number of different oils.
“It was a two-year process,” Poetsch says. “We spent a lot of time researching and doing consumer taste tests to make sure our core users couldn’t taste the difference.”
The new oil, which has zero trans fat, will be used on 15 Taco Bell products. “There is a slight cost increase with this new oil, but we are willing to make that investment and will not pass this on to our customers,” Poetsch says.
Processors make the cut
Some poultry suppliers began looking at trans fat even before it became big news. Dan Emery, vice president of marketing for Pilgrim’s Pride, in Pittsburg, Texas, says the company already had the ball rolling to eliminate these fats before last January, but the added media attention provided additional incentive for a change.
“It gave us more leverage [to make the switch],” he says. “It is a good thing to get these fats out of people’s diets and the more we can assist in doing that, the better.”
After about a year of testing different oils, Pilgrim’s Pride has eliminated trans fats from all of its branded products.
“It was a difficult process, but everyone at the company pitched in,” he says, adding that the switch has not affected food quality or flavor. No changes in processing or equipment were necessary either, to accommodate this change. “It is really all about oil technology,” Emery says. “It is cost-neutral, other than the development time to put it all together.”
Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods reported in January 2005 that it had completed the process of removing trans fat from its fully cooked breaded poultry retail and “child nutrition” school foodservice products. The initiative, announced in February 2004 with Tyson-branded breaded chicken products, included nuggets, patties and tenders.
According to Gary Mickelson, company spokesperson, “We made this conversion in response to consumer interest in products with reduced trans fat content. We know today’s consumers are more health-conscious than ever before, with increasing awareness of the nutritional composition of the food they eat. Our goal is to provide consumers with a wide array of food options, and the information to make choices that are appropriate to their own lifestyles.”
He adds that Tyson and others in the industry have been finding alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils as ingredients, including low-trans vegetable oils.
“We’re finding oils that perform well and have low trans fat composition,” Mickelson says. “These oils are generally more expensive; however, we’re working to find some more cost-effective solutions.”
Pilgrim’s Pride’s departure from using trans fat is highlighted in one of its newest lines, the EatWellStayHealthy Kids line of breaded chicken breast nuggets and popcorn chicken. Certified by the American Heart Association, the product line contains no trans fat, and is approved for Child Nutrition Labeling, a voluntary federal labeling program for the USDA’s Child Nutrition Programs.
Advance Food Co., based in Enid, Okla., also predicted the demise of trans fat early on. The company began using oils low in trans fat back in September of 2004.
“We saw the trends changing and had more requests from customers regarding trans fat,” says Katie Kovar, RD, LD, the company’s corporate dietitian.
There were many changes involved with the incorporation of the new oil, which is used on roughly 40 to 50 million pounds of Advance Food Co.’s product annually, explains Rob McLaughlin, the company’s vice president of product management.
“When we made the change, we wanted to cover all of our bases, especially with the hydrogenation process and oil we were using,” says McLaughlin. The company took both shelf life and the attributes of the food into consideration when choosing its alternative oil, and it took its time in finding a viable solution.
“It took time to test the oils as well as put product in the freezer and bring it out for a sensory analysis,” he adds. “We had to be disciplined and methodical about it.”
Currently, the company is using a soy/corn-blend oil, which bypasses the hydrogenation process. Although McLaughlin says the oil costs about 10 percent more than the previous oil that was used, it was the only one that passed the sensory analysis taste test.
What’s next on the trans fat front? Pretanik at the National Chicken Council says that they are already looking into further-processed products to see where the trans-fat levels are.
“I think that segment will be the next one to incorporate ingredients that reduce or eliminate trans fat,” he says.
According to Mickelson, Tyson will continue to evaluate the nutritional content of its products and work to optimize the taste, quality and consumer preferences.
“Removing trans fat is part of this process and will continue to remain a factor in the product development process,” he says.
A product of the 1950s, many predict hydrogenation will become obsolete due to America’s focus on healthful eating. Once this occurs, even the trans-fat listing now required on food labels may also become a thing of the past.