The Race for Trans-Fat Alternatives (cont.)

In the fall of 2004, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) led a group of congressional delegates in writing to then-Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson urging the use of more oils derived from soy, corn, sunflower and other domestically grown crops. The group also called for the use of "specially-developed varieties of soybeans and other crops, as well as oils processed in novel ways."

But this too is an option that has some industry insiders concerned.

"Coming up with a replacement for trans fat is a little like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. And we just hope the rabbit is healthy," Heller tells WebMD.

Still one more option for replacing trans fat: Taking a second look at saturated vegetable fats -- including the "tropicals" -- such as palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils.

Because they have a creamy consistency and mimic the kind of chemistry found in saturated fats from animal sources -- like butter -- they can mimic the tastes and textures we're looking for. But because they come from plants -- and not animals -- some believe their saturated-fat content may not be as bad as we once thought.

"The golden rule has always been to stay away from the tropical oils because, although they are vegetable oils, they are saturated fats," Pappa-Klein tells WebMD. But now, she says this philosophy is changing, as more and more studies begin to show that not all saturated fats are created equal.

"It's possible there could be some redeeming values in these oils after all -- and that they are not as harmful as we once thought," says Pappa-Klein.

Trans Fats: Just Forget About 'Em

That said, all three experts tell WebMD that the real future of our snack food industry may rest on a fourth option -- possibly the one most likely to take shape in the near future. And that is blending oil products into formulations that yield the benefits of partially hydrogenated oils -- shelf life, texture, and taste -- while exposing us to fewer risks.

This already seems to be the trend for several forward-thinking companies who have jumped ahead of the trans-fat labeling deadlines to introduce consumers now to foods without trans fat.

Crisco is one of the companies that has already introduced changes. It recently unveiled a 100% trans-fat-free shortening, made from a combination of sunflower, soy, and cottonseed oil. There are also multiple brands of trans-fat-free margarines and other products on the market.

Heller tells WebMD these choices are clearly better but reminds us there is no deep-fried free lunch.

"Choosing a product with no trans fat and low saturated fat is still better than high saturated-fat content or trans-fat content. But you should know that there are still significant amounts of calories in these foods so you still can't eat a lot of them," says Heller.

And again, what looks good in the lab may not necessarily translate to our snack food economy. The reason: Right now the cost of these blends is high. Too high, some say, for commercial industries to keep processed foods affordable.

Of equal concern: Whether or not our supply of crops for the new products could even meet our fast-food demands. By some estimates, it could take up to six years to turn over enough of a new vegetable crop to supply the industry with what it needs to fill our increasing hunger for convenience and taste.

Creating Your Own Healthier Snack Food

So what's a consumer with a yen for snack foods to do? Well, experts say you might want to try the same solution that Grandma used: Make your own.

Indeed, for those willing to put in the time and effort, baking your own cakes and cookies from scratch may be the way to go. The trick: Combine a healthy liquid fat -- like olive or walnut oil -- with a fruit puree like applesauce or prunes for bulk and texture. For healthier french fries, choose an oil without trans fat and slice your fries from a whole fresh potato.

In doing so, however, Heller continues to remind us to "count the calories and eat in moderation." Just because oil is unsaturated, or a cookie homemade, she says, doesn't mean you won't gain weight.

SOURCES: Lona Sandon, MEd, RD/LD, assistant professor/admissions counselor, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, NYU Medical Center, New York. Miriam Pappa-Klein MS, RD, clinical nutrition manager, Montefiore Medical Center, New York. Correspondence, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
Last Editorial Review: 4/14/2005 11:05:43 PM