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It makes pastries flaky, chips crunchy, fries tasty and cookies fresh. But "trans fat" formed when vegetable oil used in cooking, frying and baking is partially hydrogenated is fast becoming a four-letter word in consumers' lexicons.

As concerns about the nation's climbing obesity rate reach an all-time high, trans fats are being singled out for contributing to the nation's growing heart disease and weight problems. A mountain of scientific research including a comprehensive 2002 National Academy of Sciences study concludes that trans fats raise so-called "bad" LDL blood cholesterol levels, directly increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

With pressure from the medical community and consumer groups, the Food and Drug Administration stepped in last July to require food processors to label the amount of trans fats contained in their products. The new label will require a "trans fat" line to be declared directly under the saturated fat line of the Nutrition Facts panel on all products with a measurable level of trans fat (at least 0.5 grams per serving). Under the FDA requirement, food manufacturers have until January 2006 to add the amount of trans fat to their product labels.

While the FDA labeling mandate was a long time coming, the food industry is still left with an enormous task on its hands. In the next two years, food companies will scramble to change label stock. But the more monumental undertaking will be developing and using "trans-free" alternatives that address consumer health concerns but don't compromise the taste, texture and shelf-life of products. "It's the top priority for food manufacturers," says Mike Rath, product manager for NovaLipid, a portfolio of low/zero trans-fat oils made by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).

What's The Cost?

The numbers behind the issue are staggering on all fronts. FDA estimates that by 2009, trans fat labeling will prevent between 600 and 1,200 heart attacks and save 250 to 500 lives a year. Based on that estimate, FDA says the rule will save $900 million to $1.8 billion per year in medical costs, lost productivity and pain and suffering.

Achieving those health and monetary savings won't come cheaply. The food industry will spend $140 million to $250 million to uncover the amount of trans fat in their products, re-label the Nutrition Facts panel and reformulate products to decrease trans fat, according to FDA.

Despite the high-priced ticket, food manufacturers are publicly supportive of the FDA mandate. "We feel the final rule is good," says Allison Kretser, MS, RD, director of scientific and nutrition policy at the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Trans fat labeling will allow consumers to make informed choices about which products to purchase based on their own preferences and health needs." And industry experts do not expect consumers to pay more for food due to costs associated to create the new labels.

While the 2006 deadline may seem like a long way off, food manufacturers who began reformulating their products in anticipation of the final rule are already recreating their label stock to accommodate the trans fat requirement. Other companies say when their label stocks run out, they won't reorder labels without the trans fat information. Whatever the case, the changes won't be easy. Many companies have months of label stock on hand, and scores of products are seasonal in nature, making labeling changes costly. "There is a huge competitive edge between large and small companies to throw away product labels," Kretser says.

"FDA recognizes that this is a huge undertaking for the food industry," Kretser adds. "Everyone has to change the label, even if their product has no trans fats, so it's just not practical to allow only a short window of time to make the change. Even so, most companies will do it earlier than 2006."

Snack food giant Frito-Lay, owned by PepsiCo, got a jump-start on the issue back in 2002 well before the FDA labeling mandate. "We were the first company to remove trans fats, and we were the first to include trans fat information on the Nutrition Facts panel of our packaging," says Rocco Papalia, senior vice president, technology, Frito-Lay North America. The company also recently introduced a new "smart snack" icon that will be featured on the packaging of some products. The yellow, green and pink icon says "Great Taste, Smart Snack" and includes information on the types and amount of fat and cholesterol in the product. A product must have zero grams of trans fat to carry the icon.

Using such marketing techniques to appeal to health-conscious consumers may become common practice among food manufacturers. But industry experts say that will depend upon the type of product and on any action by FDA to define trans fat claims. "Many more products are trans fat-free than say they are trans fat-free," says Regina Hildwine, senior director, food labeling and standards, National Food Processors Association. "We expect that FDA will define some nutrient content claims about trans fat including a "free" claim and that food companies will be just as interested in using these claims as they are in using other claims."

Alternative Innovation

Changing the label to reflect the amount of trans fat in a product is only part of the food industry's overall mission. Most companies are aggressively seeking new alternatives to hydrogenated oils to reduce or eliminate the amount of trans fats in their products. "The fat and oil ingredients that look the most promising to individual companies will vary because of different types of products, ingredient properties, performance characteristics and cost effects," says Hildwine.

While food manufacturers aren't disclosing which alternatives they are seeking because of competitive issues, most have been working for several years on this challenge in anticipation of the final FDA rule on trans fat labeling.

ADM went to market with its NovaLipid line of zero/low trans fat alternatives last July and is receiving positive feedback from many of its customers. "Every application presents a different challenge," says ADM's Mike Rath. "There is no solution that will work for all applications, which is why we needed to develop a portfolio of options."

ADM's portfolio can be used with different product categories, depending on their requirements for taste, shelf-life, aroma and appearance, says Rath. The line includes naturally stable oils, tropical oils, blended oils and oils derived from enzyme interesterification. ADM says this last technique provides manufacturers of certain products like margarine with an economical, flexible and environmentally friendly alternative to hydrogenated oils.

Because there is no "one-size-fits-all" option to trans fats, the food industry must look at both short- and long-term solutions one of which may utilize modern biotechnology. The issue of biotech has long been a source of frustration for food manufacturers who have been up against fierce opposition to the technology in Europe and have struggled to show consumers any tangible health benefits to using bioengineered crops. Ironically, the trans fat problem may open the door to greater consumer acceptance of the use of biotechnology in foods.

"Long term three to five years out the industry may be using genetic modification to breed crops that have a better nutritional profile so you don't have to use hydrogenated oils," says GMA's Kretser. "This could be the first example of the use of modern biotechnology that has a significant health benefit." But, she adds, new sources of oil will require significant interest and demand from the food industry.

As part of a three-phase soybean breeding project, Monsanto Co., St. Louis, recently announced it will apply biotechnology to develop a soybean that will enable the production of a trans- and saturated fat-free soy oil. The company is already using conventional breeding techniques to create a soybean that would produce a new kind of soy oil one that reduces the need for hydrogenation and helps reduce and eliminate trans fats in many foods.

"It is our hope that these enhanced soybeans will provide economic and environmental benefits for growers and healthier solutions for consumers who are concerned about their intake of unhealthy fats," says David Stark, Monsanto's vice president of global industry partnerships.

One thing is clear: with the long-term complexities involved in developing viable trans-free alternatives and the short-term task of changing the Nutrition Facts panel the food industry has its marching orders in hand for the next several years.

Lisa Allen is president of ALLEN Communications Inc., based in Alexandria, Va.

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