WOODMERE, Ohio – The nation's food companies are stirring up new recipes for everything from Oreos to SpaghettiOs to get rid of trans fat (search), the artery-clogging ingredient that must be listed on food labels next year.
The companies say they're promoting good health, but they're also looking ahead to the new federal rule and new dietary guidelines urging consumers away from trans fats.
Trans fats have been in the nation's food supply for decades, giving products a long shelf life and making goodies like chips and cookies oh so yummy.
They are formed when liquid oils turn into solid fats and they are generally listed on foods as partially hydrogenated oils (search). Grab a bag of cookies from the snack food aisle and chances are trans fats are there.
But maybe not for long. The Food and Drug Administration (search) is ordering trans fats to be listed on food labels by January 2006. The FDA says trans fat, like saturated fat, increases the risk of heart disease.
A few years ago, Sarit Zamir was like many consumers — clueless about the subject.
"I used to eat junk food a few years ago. We just didn't know," said the 32-year-old mother of three.
Now, Zamir goes out of her way to shop at a store that promises 100 percent trans fat-free foods. She says that since making the change in her family's diet, she's noticed a difference in her children's health, behavior and ability to get a good night's sleep.
"I don't touch trans fat at all," she said, her cart filled with soy milk, cage-free eggs and pure rice bran.
It took several years for the Wild Oats Natural Marketplace where Zamir shops to remove all the trans fat from its shelves, said Mandi Kelley, marketing coordinator of the store in tiny Woodmere Village outside of Cleveland.
"There were a lot of companies we had to coax into changing their ingredients," she said.
Eliminating trans fat isn't as simple as removing partially hydrogenated oils and substituting another oil — not if you want to keep the flavor.
"It takes smart engineering, smart chemistry," said James Chung, president of Reach Advisors Inc., a Boston-based marketing strategy and research firm.
"There's a reason why consumers like partially hydrogenated oils. Let's face it — fat tastes good."
Still, Chung expects to see mainstream companies gain market share with trans fat-free products, up until the point that most have removed it.
Campbell Soup has revised some products and is working on a few more, including some varieties of Chunky soup and SpaghettiOs with meatballs.
"Our goal is to remove the trans fat without impacting the taste because we have products that people have been enjoying for years and years," spokeswoman Juli Mandel Sloves said.
Campbell's owns Pepperidge Farm, which met its goal of having zero grams trans fat in its entire line of Goldfish crackers by December, Mandel Sloves said. Pepperidge Farm is turning its attention to other products, especially cookies.
The J.M. Smucker Co. introduced a version of Crisco with zero grams trans fat last April. The new product comes in a green tub — a color consumers equate with being healthy. Smucker's spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher said the product has been doing well.
Gorton Inc. announced it had removed trans fats from all 56 of its frozen seafood products.
Kraft Foods Inc. has removed trans fats from Triscuits and Oreos and is now working on other cookies and crackers, spokeswoman Nancy Daigler said.
The company wants to make sure that when eliminating trans fat, the new product's combined total of trans or saturated fats is lower than the original.
In some cases, like Triscuit, the removal of trans fat isn't noticeable. But in others it is, like the trans fat-free Oreo, which has a different texture and taste compared with the creamy, crispy original.
Frito-Lay began working to eliminate trans fat in 2002 and completed a conversion to corn oil for Tostitos, Doritos and Cheetos a year later. Frito-Lay was a trans fat trendsetter, Chung said, but the message got lost in the Atkins diet craze.
Trans fat could become the new carbohydrate as far as consumer avoidance, but Chung doesn't expect the mania that Atkins inspired.
For Wild Oats shopper Tim Hemry, trans fat isn't at the forefront of his thoughts. But the 53-year-old's family avoids it by staying away from prepackaged food.
"We want good-for-you food," Hemry said. "The hydrogenated oil is no good for you. Our rule is as close to God made it in the first place."