The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to reduce artificial trans fats in processed foods. According to the agency, the move could help prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year. This means manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants could have to reformulate some of their recipes.
When hydrogen is added to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation, it creates artificial trans fats, or trans fatty acids. Food cooked in trans fats is cheaper, has a longer shelf life, and is less greasy.
Margaret Hamburg, FDA commissioner of food and drugs, said even though manufacturers and retailers have voluntarily reduced trans fats levels in recent years, it’s not enough. “There still remain a substantial number of products that contain partially hydrogenated oils on the market,” she said. “We can still find artificial trans fats in some of our processed foods, such as certain desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, margarine, and coffee creamers.”
Extensive research, including findings from the Harvard School of Public Health, shows a link between trans fats and coronary heart disease. Veena Vani, a Glastonbury-based physician who works in the insurance industry, said consumption of trans fats not only raises the risk for cardiac disease, stroke, and diabetes, but it also adds to already high health care costs. "Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in this country," she said, "and we spend over $500 billion annually. Trans fats are the major artery-clogging substance. It’s one of the major contributors of heart disease. I think [the] FDA’s move to ban trans fats is in the right direction. It can definitely decrease the health care costs and [lead to] better health care outcomes.”
According to the FDA, consumption of trans fats declined sharply after it required manufacturers to list them on food labels in 2006. But shoppers like Linda Hamillskonieczny, at a Stew Leonard’s store in Newington, said even though she tries to buy healthy foods, she doesn’t always have the time to read the label. The ban could solve that problem. “I think that would make shopping a lot easier,” she said. “I’d be all for it. I think it’s about time we had to step up to the plate.”
Stew Leonard’s, like other retailers, has voluntarily eliminated trans fats in many in-house brands. However, Barbara Bucknam, Director of Quality, said reformulations could drive up cost by as much as ten percent. "Trying to do the research," she said, "and trying to find out what is going to replace a hydrogenated fat in an item, and still make it have the same texture, taste, and flavor, is hard to do. It takes a lot of research. Those products are traditionally more expensive. This is relatively new over the last five or ten years. The industry has to catch up. It takes a lot of trial and error."
Bucknam said many food manufacturers who sell their products at Stew Leonard’s, such as Pepperidge Farm, are also making efforts to reduce trans fats. Pepperidge Farm declined to be interviewed, but sent WNPR a statement saying the company has removed trans fats from most of its foods, and is now working to reformulate its remaining products.
For small businesses, that’s not an easy task. Emily Woodward, owner of Get Baked in Windsor, said nearly all of her items don’t have trans fats, but she uses shortening in pie crust for taste and texture. It’s also cheaper than dairy, and has a longer shelf life. Now, she’s looking at other options. "Spectrum has a shortening that’s organic and has no trans fat," she said, "so we’d have to find another distributor, which means having to hit another minimum delivery, usually $250 to $500. I have to figure out where to put it [in my tiny kitchen]." Woodward said even though costs could go up by as much as 20 percent, she won’t be able to increase prices.
Scott Smith of the Max Restaurant Group stopped using shortening to fry foods because consumers were concerned about it in their diet. He said only a few items like coating chocolate have trans fats, and he’s discussing with suppliers about substitutes. "I have spoken with a few of our vendors about this," he said, "and they’re very aware of it. I asked one to generate a report for us of the items we should be conscious of."
Smith said the switch is easier for upscale restaurants, but it’s harder for other parts of the industry. "I would imagine there are a lot of fast food restaurants and food manufacturers that this change could be devastating to," he said. "Their business model has got to be built around having shelf life on their products."
The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of trans fats to less than two grams per day, based on 2,000 calories of food consumed. Putting that in context, Wendy’s Double Stack burger contains 1.5 grams of trans fat. McDonald’s Big Mac has one gram, and Jake’s Wayback signature burger has 1.5 grams. When contacted by WNPR, Jake’s Wayback in Cheshire declined to be interviewed.
The FDA is currently seeking public comments on how the proposed ban would impact small businesses, and how to ensure a smooth transition if a final determination is issued. The 60-day comment period ends on January 7, 2014.