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.
Transcending Trans Fats: The Search for a New Oil
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.
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.
Mix and Match: Finding the Holy Grail of Snack Foods
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 percent 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.
No Deep-Fried Free Lunch
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.