The Food and Drug Administration raised a bit of a stir last November when it released proposed new rules that would essentially ban trans fats from processed foods sold in the U.S., but the reality is that most food companies have at been working on cutting partially hydrogenated oils from their products for several years. It’s likely that virtually all of them have at least been thinking about it, says Daniel Brooker, a consultant with California-based Food Lab Inc.
Trans fats, aka partially hydrogenated oils, are liquid fats that are turned into solids and used to influence mouthfeel and extend shelf life in baked goods, frozen desserts and other foods. The American Heart Association and other experts say the substances are dangerous because they raise the level of LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
Brooker’s company works with food manufacturers on nutritional analysis and FDA food label compliance consulting, and most of his clients first began changing their products after labeling rules took effect and companies had to start listing trans fats along with calories and other nutritional information in 2006, he says. Then, two months ago, the FDA announced it had made a preliminary determination that the substances are no longer recognized as generally safe. The public has until March 8 to comment on the proposal and, if that determination is finalized, companies would not be able to use trans fats in their products anymore without FDA permission.
Making the switch to healthier fats starts with finding the best source, Brooker says, keeping in mind that it should usually be a one-to-one switch.
“There’s some R&D because it does affect the finished texture. It takes some time, because there’s a lot of that you don’t experience right away. It might look fine when you make it in the factory, but it may change over the shelf life.”
Shelf life of both the new ingredients and the finished product are a key concern during the testing phase, says Laurie Troiani, product development division manager at The National Food Lab’s Product Design Group.
“It’s key to what manufacturers have to do once they have a new formula,” she said. “They need to ensure that the cracker, for example, is of the same quality in the consumer’s eyes.”
Food-makers also perform blind comparison tests with either trained palates or regular consumers, which is typically a pricier option, to make sure the new product is just as tasty and crunchy as the original, Troiani says.
When companies first began trading out trans fats, the results were often dryer and more brittle than the original, Brooker says, but the companies that make the oils have been retooling along with the food-makers and have since come up with options that work better in the recipes.
In addition to re-engineering the products, food companies also have to reconfigure the packaging. “They have to use up the existing inventory, then get new plates, new artwork, new nutrition facts (labels), and it takes some lead time in getting that all done.”
Brooker shared a few additional insights into the process:
SB: How tough is it to find the right new ingredients?
Brooker: The process usually starts with suppliers. They contact existing ones and new ones to see what [ingredients] they have. Then based on price and availability, they will do some R&D with that stuff. That will determine the path forward. In the beginning, there were not as many options and supply was more of an issue. It’s not as difficult now.
SB: Will consumers notice a difference?
Brooker: Not really. It won’t be so noticeable that people won’t buy it anymore. The benefit of trans fats, the two main ones, are that it raises the melting temperature so foods are more solid at room temperature, so it’s good for crumb structure. The other thing is that it’s really a lot less susceptible to going rancid. So products that used to get a lot of shelf life may not be able to do a straight one for one. They’ll have to do a little bit more R&D and experimenting with other ingredients to make sure it won’t go rancid quicker than it did before.
I think it’s more meeting the customers’ expectations. If Wal-Mart says ‘Here’s our distribution cycle,’ and you have to make a product that fits their cycle, that’s where shelf-life is most important. The customer determines the shelf life, and if the product doesn’t last, the manufacturer will be taking all that product back, and that’s a bad place to be. Companies need to make sure they still have the shelf life they need.