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Weekly Comment

Trans Fats: A Farewell to Harm

11-Dec-2006

There's no way but out for heart-damaging trans fatty acids, and procrastinators in the food industry will achieve nothing by delaying reformulation other than lagging behind in the game as the rest of the world waves goodbye.

 

We all know that trans fats are bad. We're fed up of hearing it, but we'll continue to hear it until that inevitable moment arrives when partially hydrogenated vegetable oils vanish from our food supply.

And then there'll be silence, the issue will no longer be an issue, and trans fats will disappear from the minds and hearts of tomorrow's consumers.

The past few years have already been a huge turning point for the food industry. Solid science, new regulations, lawsuits and consumer demand have all led to a sweeping effort to remove artificially created trans fatty acids from food products around the world.

But it's not just food manufacturers tapping into new market dynamics - the issue has also started to creep into the foodservice arena, with increasing numbers of US fast food chains announcing they will transition to trans fat free cooking oils. The most recent additions to the list are KFC and Taco Bell.

Last week's decision by the New York City Board of Health to ban the fats from the city's restaurants demonstrates that legal requirements are likely to step in when voluntary action is not successful.

The food industry, especially in the US where trans fat awareness is highest, has never before seen anything quite like this. The villain has been identified, dangled in our faces by relentless attention from the media and consumer health groups, and is now being eradicated.

And the fact that - unlike saturated fats - artificially created trans fatty acids can be replaced means that there's no real way around it.

Formed when liquid vegetable oils are made into solid fats through a process called hydrogenation, trans fats started appearing in a huge number of foods because they were ultimately convenient for the industry- contributing to the shelf life, stability and flavor of products.

But over the past decade, more and more science has emerged linking trans fats to high blood cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart disease.

Although some trans fats occur naturally in dairy and meat products, around 80 percent of the trans fats in our diets come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Together with two high profile lawsuits in 2003 in the US against Kraft and McDonald's, the scientific proof has resulted in a total switch in the market, with demand for trans free going through the roof in recent years.

All this has sent ripples through the food industry. Consumers have turned to food manufacturers with their demands for trans free products, food firms have transferred this demand to oil companies, which have passed it on to seed firms, which ultimately turned to farmers. The result has been a surge in the development of trans free alternatives, such as rapeseed and low linolenic soybeans.

With the alternatives available, and with the continuing commotion surrounding trans fats, it is very likely that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are in their last moments of not so glorious glory.

So going after those alternatives is better done sooner rather than later, as there are plenty of other consumer health issues waiting at the doors of the food industry, and these won't take long to start knocking hard.

Lorraine Heller is editor of FoodNavigator-USA and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, she has lived and worked in the UK, Cyprus and France.

If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail lorraine.heller'at'decisionnews.com

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