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The Trans Fat Controversy

Trans fats are on their way out of the American diet. Trans fats are created when vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated, a process that retards spoilage and allows the oils to be used in a number of industrial food processing applications. Some trans fats occur naturally in some vegetables and dairy products, but it is the trans fat that is used in cooking oil, and for baked goods like bread and cookies, that has gotten the attention of nutritionists and food activists.

A wide cross section of medical opinion blames trans fats for the lowering of blood levels of HDL (the good cholesterol) and an elevation of LDL (considered the bad cholesterol), leading to hardening of the arteries and coronary problems. The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates the average America eats 4.7 pounds of trans fats every year. Both the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have warned against trans fat.

The FDA now requires trans fat content to be clearly indicated on product labels. Unfortunately, the requirement only applies per serving, and allows up to half a gram of trans fat per serving to be indicated as “zero trans fat.” The per-serving rules are often deceptive since “servings” are often unrealistically small given American eating habits. A serving of a single cookie, for example, can legally have almost half a gram of trans fat and qualify as trans fat free. A consumer who eats four cookies could unwittingly consume almost two grams of trans fat.

Bowing to public pressure and litigation by an anti-trans fat organization, baking-giant Nabisco, producer of Oreo sandwich cookies, a product so well known and well-loved in America that it even appears on crossword puzzles, began a campaign to eliminate the trans fat from the popular product. The trans-fats used to manufacture Oreos added greatly to the cookie’s distinctive taste, consistency and ease of manufacture. Scientists at Nabisco’s parent company Kraft were faced with the task of eliminating the trans-fats from Oreos and other products without altering the taste and feel of this culturally important food item.

Kraft’s size and its ability to invest 100,000 people hours in the project, led to a successful reintroduction of an Oreo with no trans-fats. Tasting panels reported hardly any difference; American children gave no complaints. Turning pressure into profit, Kraft’s elimination of trans-fats from its Triscuit crackers, also with no diminution in taste and consistency of the product, led to a significant increase in Triscuit sales. The food giant engineered the removal of trans fats from its broad line of cereals, pizzas, meat products, desserts and other foods. By the time the FDA labeling requirements when into effect, the company was able to turn a threat into a marketing opportunity.

Many other companies have followed Kraft’s lead in eliminating trans fats. One by one, fast food chains have announced plans to eliminate trans fats for cooking: Taco Bell in its 4200 US restaurants, KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) in its 5500 restaurants, Wendy’s with its 5500 restaurants, Arby’s in its 3500 restaurants, while other chains, including industry leader McDonalds, are looking into the complicated task of finding substitutes for high trans fat cooking oils.

The trans fat cannot be phased out immediately in such huge food operations. Arby’s, for example, is beginning by cutting the trans fat from its French fries, a two-step process, since potato suppliers generally pre-cook the fries in trans fat before the restaurant finishes them off in more trans fat. Taco Bell’s search for a substitute fat took two years of research and extensive consumer taste tests.

Small restaurants have a harder time eliminating trans fats, but that’s just what they may have to do if New York City’s proposed ban on trans fats comes into effect for its 24,000 food service establishments. The ban is controversial, considered by some an overzealous and overreaching example of government intervention in business, but New York City has a good track record; the city’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants created similar debate, but was successful and is widely imitated.

The elimination of trans fats from the American diet will not change the country’s number one health problem: obesity. The new Oreos may have no trans fats, but they have the same level of calories and calories from fat as the old Oreos. Americans do still have to strive to eat less, but most health experts agree that trans fats are harmful if ingested in any quantity.