The Race for Trans-Fat Alternatives
With the FDA asking food companies to label trans-fat content, the race is on to come up with a healthier new alternative. But will the result be any better -- or healthier?
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed By Michael Smith
Trans fatty acids. Hard to believe these three little words could launch a snack food revolution. But that's exactly what's happening as fast-food makers scramble to come up with viable alternatives for the once highly prized partially hydrogenated oils -- the source of most dietary trans fat.
The reason for the race: an FDA ruling. As evidence began mounting that trans fats were detrimental to heart health, the FDA ruled that beginning in 2006 food manufacturers will have to reveal the amount of trans fat in their products.
As a result, companies are not only working to reduce the amounts found in many snack and convenience foods, but many are also looking to replace trans fats entirely. But that, say experts, may be easier said than done.
Americans Love Trans Fat
"We don't have good substitutions for these oils -- at least not available right now. And it's not going to be easy to replace all the ways in which these fats contribute to the convenience foods that we, as a nation, have come to rely on, " says nutritionist Lona Sandon, Med,RD/LD, assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Small amounts of trans fats are found in animal products. But those causing most concern are formed artificially when vegetable oils are put through a chemical process called "hydrogenation." In this process, the molecular structure of the oil is changed, allowing it to take on a solid form. When used in processed foods -- particularly baked goods -- the result is texture, bulk and taste similar to saturated fats like butter or lard.
"These oils seemed almost miraculous in the sense that they would melt at exactly the right time in the baking process, so you could get a flaky crust and increase the shelf life of a food. You could deep fry french fries over and over without the oil burning -- all without using saturated fats. They thought they hit on something really great," says dietitian Samantha Heller, MS, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Medical Center in New York City.
What no one had counted on, however, was that the trans fats that formed during the manufacturing process would have as much -- or some say even greater -- impact on our heart health as the saturated fats these new oils replaced.
"Essentially, the body does not know what to do with these reconfigured oils. It doesn't know how to process them, and that's where the problems with trans fats really begin," says Miriam Pappa-Klein, MS, RD, clinical nutrition manager at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.
While everyone agrees trans fats must be phased out of our diet, it's tough to get anyone to agree on how. Among the easiest options: go back to using saturated fats like butter and lard, but keep our intake to a minimum.
"I actually think it would be a great idea to have baked goods taste like they were intended to taste, and at the same time, encourage people to eat a lot less of these foods, which I think is the really important message in all of this," Pappa-Klein tells WebMD.
While this won't solve the shelf-life problem -- butter and lard can turn rancid relatively quickly -- she says it can solve the taste and texture problem immediately and give us more reason to enjoy what we eat, but in smaller quantities.
At the same time it's a solution that has some -- like Heller -- very concerned.
"Going back to saturated fats is not the answer. I think we've already proved as a nation that we are not going to eat a little bit. If we could, we probably wouldn't be having this problem with trans fats right now," says Heller.
Sandon agrees: "I think it's worth looking for something other than saturated fat. But I think we have to tread carefully over this new ground to ensure we don't make the same mistakes we made with trans fat." This, she says, includes racing a product to market before we fully understand how it can affect our health.
From Trans Fats to Vegetable Oils
This becomes even more relevant when we consider option No. 2: Rearranging molecules to come up with yet another man-made oil that does what we want. A similar option is to cultivate more stable vegetable oils -- by interbreeding various plants -- or using high-tech agricultural engineering to create entirely new ones. Both are movements gaining support on Capitol Hill.