Trans fatty acids (TFAs) are formed when liquid vegetable oils go through a chemical process called hydrogenation. Common in a range of food products - biscuits, chips, doughnuts, crackers - the hydrogenated vegetable fat is used by food processors because it is solid at room temperature and has a longer shelf life.
But research suggests that trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, causing the arteries to become more rigid and clogged. An increase in LDL cholesterol levels can lead to heart disease. As a result, their use - increasingly criticised - will be reduced as more consumers opt for alternatives.
In response to increasing pressure from consumer groups, and in the US imminent rules in 2006 to label the trans fat content - food makers are already starting to remove the TFAs from a variety of food products.
"We have taken the decision to reduce trans fats levels to less than 1 per cent of total food energy, the level recommended by the World Health Organisation," a spokesperson for the Swiss food giant Nestlé told FoodNavigator.com.
The leading food company in the world said that their priority is to reduce the addition of TFAs into food products, pointing out that TFAs are also naturally present in relatively low levels in products containing full cream milk.
"We are looking to reduce the content by the end of the year," added the Swiss firm, confirming that new formulations are 'in the pipeline.'
Nestlé joins a raft of food makers - North American for the most part - that have already cut the trans fat content.
Kraft foods said last month it has launched a trans fat free version of its iconic Oreo biscuit. The move follows a court case against Kraft's owner Nabisco - that attracted massive media attention in the US - whereby consumer pressure group BanTransFats called on the firm to remove the biscuits from sale because of the 'harmful trans fat's to children'.
The case was later withdrawn because the lawyer who filed the suit said the publicity surrounding the case accomplished what he set out to do: create awareness about the dangers of trans fat. Kraft is now leading the way in efforts to reduce trans fatty acids in food products.
"Kraft has an aggressive plan in place to reduce or eliminate trans fat levels in our cookie and cracker products by 2004-2005," said Kevin McGahren-Clemens, vice president, cookies, last month.
Frito-Lay, a division of Pepsi Co, removed the TFAs from its snack product Doritos last year and soup giant Campbells announced in February that its Goldfish crackers, sold through the company's Pepperidge Farm, will become trans fat-free. "The transition - which will involve reformulation of almost 165 individual products - will be largely complete by May 2004 and fully complete by September 2004," the firm said in a statement.
Uptake for alternative ingredients is likely to grow in parallel to the growth in food makers opting for zero trans fat formulations. And with the labelling rules cleared for use by 2006 in the US, this market is likely to see stronger growth than Europe, where no such rules have been agreed by Brussels, for the moment.
But replacing the role of a partially hydrogenated fat in terms of aerating, emulsifying, lubricating, and providing textural, structural and flavour characteristics is a challenge for food developers.
Increasing numbers of ingredients suppliers are rolling out replacements for the TFAs. Last month Danish ingredients firm Danisco claimed its emulsifier/oil blends fit the bill.
"These emulsifier blends with mixtures of non-hydrogenated oil offer the same properties as a partially hydrogenated shortening in most systems," said Jim Doucet, technical manager, emulsifiers at Danisco.
Earlier this year Dutch nutritional oils and fats firm Loders Croklaan said it was looking to target market opportunities in the trans free market through its palm oil based ingredients. The company will break ground on a new plant in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
US firm Archer Daniels Midland has brought the NovaLipid zero and reduced trans-fat oils and shortenings to the alternative TFA market. According to ADM, NovaLipid's range of oils and shortenings can be used in margarine, baking, frying, confectionery, snack and cereal products. And JM Smucker recently introduced a shortening with zero grammes of trans fat. "New Zero Grams Trans Fat Shortening is made from a patented blend of sunflower, soy, and cottonseed oils to create a high-performance shortening with zero grams trans fat per serving," said the firm last month.
Brussels has yet to propose an equivalent for Europe, but on a national level certain countries are starting to make trans free moves. From the beginning of June last year Denmark became the first country in the world to introduce restrictions on the use of industrially produced trans fatty acids. Oils and fat are now forbidden on the Danish market if they contain trans fatty acids exceeding 2 per cent.
Speaking at the time, the country's minister for agriculture Mariann Fischer Boel had hopes that the EU would follow suit saying: "It is my hope that we will soon see EU regulation in this field. The next step should be common low EU limit values for trans fatty acids."
An indication that the labelling of trans fats could be soon under discussion in Brussels came from the Food Standards Agency when it told FoodNavigator.com that at an upcoming review of nutrition labelling in the EU "the subject of trans fatty acid labelling may be discussed".
The review, which is at the early stages, is likely to include a look at which nutrients should be declared as part of the nutrition label, said the FSA. A proposal to amend the current EU rules is expected later this year.