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FDA rules prompt rush to reduce trans fats

Published Aug. 24, 2005

(ran TNP edition)

It's still a year before food companies will be required to disclose the amount of trans fat in their packaged products, but already more and more are doing so, or scrambling for ways to reduce those levels before they have to reveal them.

This is especially true among the makers of soft-tub margarines and spreads, many of which now say "no trans fat" on their labels, even though the products may contain a tiny amount of this fat.

For consumers, the changing trans-fat scene calls for a sharp eye at the grocery store.

Beginning in January 2006, packaged-food labels will have to tell you how much trans fat each serving contains, as mandated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Because trans fat has been attacked for years as possibly even worse for your heart than the long-assailed saturated fat, having to list it on the nutrition label is not likely to boost sales, while being free of it is seen as a marketing plus.

"Oh, yes, indeed," the search for trans-fat alternatives has grown intense among both food manufacturers and the suppliers of oils and fats used in food products, said Robert Reeves. He is director of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, a suppliers' trade organization.

At the same time, companies say they must find solutions that retain the food qualities consumers expect.

"When we looked at the objective of reducing trans fat, the overriding goal was to not affect the flavor and performance of the product," said Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods. The company's products include Fleischmann's, Parkay and Blue Bonnet margarines or spreads, some varieties of which boast no trans fat.

While a small amount of trans fat occurs naturally in milk and milk products and in some meat, by far the largest share of this fat found in the U.S. diet is man-made. Producing it involves infusing vegetable oils with hydrogen atoms, making them more stable and firm at room temperature, much like saturated fat and with similar heart-health impacts. In the ingredient list on food labels, these appear as "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils.

Product aids

In crackers and cookies, which are major users of trans fats, these fats add such qualities as crispness or moistness. They also help hold flavors and extend shelf life.

In stick margarine, another major user, trans fat adds the firmness that makes this product's texture similar to butter's. Even soft tub spreads gain a bit of firmness from trans fat, though these spreads usually contain far less trans fat than does stick margarine.

Federal rules say a margarine must be at least 80 percent total fat. If it has less than that, it must be called a spread.

When butter's high level of potentially artery-clogging saturated fat came under fire in past decades, millions switched to stick margarine, which is made with vegetable oil, has less saturated fat and no cholesterol. Butter's higher cost likely also influences decisions.

Then, when research revealed that the trans fat in margarine might have a similar, or even worse, impact on heart health, millions more switched to tub spreads, with their reduced trans fat.

Today, industry figures indicate that Americans consume a far greater volume of margarine and spreads than butter, by about 72 percent to 28 percent.

And soft-tub spreads now outsell stick margarine, volume-wise, 70 percent to 30 percent, though most of the soft products aren't considered useful for baking.

Consumers who care about the health issues surrounding butter substitutes need to follow the standard rule of modern food shopping: Read labels _ and not just those on the front of a package.

No doesn't mean no

The spreads that say "no trans fat" on the front often contain a tiny amount. The FDA allows that claim provided a product contains no more than { gram of trans fat per 1 tablespoon serving. Even if a product claims no trans fat, you'll know a little is present if the ingredient list includes hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.

Many authorities consider a half gram of trans fat insignificant. However, at least one medical expert says it could be an issue for anyone who is following a very low-fat diet because of diagnosed heart disease.

"People might use more than a tablespoon," unknowingly raising their trans-fat consumption to more significant levels, if they don't know it's there, said Dr. Robert Knopp, director of the Northwest Lipid Research Clinic. Affiliated with the University of Washington, the nationally known clinic studies blood fats and heart health, including the impact of fats in the diet.

"I believe trans fats are worse than saturated fats," having been linked to a rise in LDL, or bad, cholesterol and a drop in HDL, or good cholesterol, Knopp said.

Some critics of the anti-trans-fat movement note that no clinical studies have proved these fats cause heart attacks. However, their link to unfavorable cholesterol levels, plus epidemiological studies linking them to heart disease, make a convincing case for that connection, said Knopp.

Unsaturated fats, especially monounsaturated fat (as in olive, canola and avocado oils), get higher marks than either trans fat or saturated fat for heart health.

A few spreads, such as Smart Balance 67 Percent Light Spread, contain no hydrogenated oil at all and, consequently, not a trace of trans fat _ not even the very tiny amount allowed under a "no trans fat" label. However, health authorities say that most stick margarines have significant amounts of trans fat, even though the packages don't say so and won't have to until 2006.

Again, the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils in the ingredient list give you a clue.

Consistency is key

How have some spreads managed to achieve no- or low-trans-fat levels along with desired consistency? For virtually all spreads, greater water content than that in stick margarines helps reduce the total fat level. At the same time, experimenting with various oils, such as corn oil, and with oil blends has helped achieve desired consistency with little or no trans fat, said Reeves, the edible-oil industry spokesman.

But with competition running high, most companies aren't revealing their precise techniques.

"We consider the specifics of the oils proprietary," said DeYoung of ConAgra. "What we've done generally is combine a unique blend of oils, in some cases combined with a different process of hydrogenation that creates fewer trans fats."

Critics note that some of the no-trans-fat spreads contain so-called tropical oils, such as palm or coconut, which contribute firmness but are largely saturated. A look at the ingredient list will clue you in.

An example of a no-trans-fat spread that blends many oils is Smart Balance 67 Percent Buttery Spread, which contains the oils of palm fruit, soybean, canola seed and olive, along with emulsifiers and other ingredients.

As the 2006 labeling deadline approaches, Reeves says oil companies and food manufacturers are working "fiercely" to develop new ways to replace trans fats with more-healthful fats that can do all the things trans fats do: achieve product firmness, crispness or moistness, hold flavor and extend shelf life.

Besides experimenting with various vegetable oils and oil blends, they're also starting to use a new process bearing the hefty name of "interesterification," which is said to firm an oil without giving it the properties of saturated fat.

Also under way is biotech research to develop new oilseed varieties that will give processed foods desirable taste and texture as well as favorable health properties. FDA approval will be required.

Meanwhile, when choosing a spread for that morning toast, the prevailing advice from health experts is to select a soft tub variety, especially one that says "no trans fat."