COVER STORY: Health & Wellness: Trans fat attack

Trans fat has become the dirty word of the food industry -- and most would argue, rightly so. Now some grocers are taking action -- ranging from dropping offending ingredients from their own menus, to seeking trans-fat-free gems from among CPG offerings -- to make sure they don't get their own mouths washed out with government-issue soap.

While small portions of trans fat are found naturally in meat and dairy products, artificial trans fats, which are produced from the chemical process of hydrogenation of oils, have been linked to coronary heart disease and other health issues. Most Americans consume about 4.7 pounds of such trans fats per year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- an amount well above the American Heart Association's recommendation that folks eat less than 1.6 pounds per year.

As a result government has begun stepping in to regulate the use of these fats, on the premise that voluntary efforts to cut back haven't, or won't, get real results. Following trans fat labeling requirements that hit food manufacturers last year, the anti-trans-fat campaign has moved on to the restaurant industry.

New York City recently became the first major U.S. city to officially ban artificial trans fats from restaurants, school cafeterias, and other foodservice establishments. Now other cities and states are following suit. As of mid-February, a total of 19 states and five localities, New York City included, had introduced bills to restrict or totally do away with trans fats in restaurants or cafeterias, or at least to require warnings about trans fat content in those establishments.

All of this negative attention has supermarket operators standing up and paying attention, and many are taking the proactive route by removing trans fats on their own.

Richmond, Va.-based Ukrop's Super Markets, for one, has removed trans fats from its restaurant-equivalent food products, as well as many of its bakery items. Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets offers a trans-fat-free selection on its "Healthy Favorites" menu. Long Island City, N.Y.-based online food retailer FreshDirect, engaged in the trans fat debate in its own backyard, has removed hydrogenated oils from all products made in its bakery, kitchen, and catering departments. Meanwhile Cincinnati-based Kroger and others have begun using trans-fat-free frying oils.

"We wanted to be proactive," explains Julie Bishop, Ukrop's manager of culinary and wellness trends. "We started talking about removing trans fats in 2004. When the labeling requirements were coming, it pushed us along -- I'd say that was where the rubber met the road."

From coast to coast many other chains are currently in test mode, experimenting with various frying oils and fat replacements in an effort to eliminate or significantly reduce trans fats.

The phenomenon is beginning to reach the packaged goods arena, too, as retailers rethink their private label product profiles.

Industry watchers commend such actions on the part of retailers.

"There's a broad brush that applies to the food industry," notes Blaine Becker, director of marketing and communications for the Hartman Group, a consulting and market research firm based in Bellevue, Wash. "Retailers would be wise to start looking for alternatives. It's better to take the proactive approach than to have the heavy hand of the law coming down on you."

Becker also notes that health-conscious consumers might view in a more positive light those retailers that are taking a stand, especially if those consumers are also beginning to see such changes, either voluntary or mandatory, emerging in the foodservice industry.

No easy alternatives

Of course, several challenges await those supermarkets that choose to be proactive. To begin with, trans fat replacements don't come cheaply -- or easily -- in terms of the time and effort required to test alternatives. The supermarkets Progressive Grocer spoke with have dedicated at least a year on average to the effort. Several grocers say they are so far choosing to absorb the costs so that they don't have to pass along the added expense to their customers.

On top of those concerns, however, some experts warn that the available supply of alternatives is coming up short, at least in the short term. It will be several years, they argue, before the supply will be able to meet the demand.

Retailers, like restaurant operators, are also facing an added dilemma in that many of the trans fat alternatives are less than perfect: They're high in saturated fat, another well-known contributor to coronary heart disease and other health problems.

"If these bans were to roll out nationally, we wouldn't want the less-than-healthy alternative oils to have a negative effect on the health of the public," says Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association in Washington.

This was a concern as Ukrop's searched for alternatives, admits Bishop. "As we were reformulating products, we wanted to keep in mind that you don't want to just take out trans fat and add more saturated fat, which isn't that good for you, either."

The irony of today's trans fat warnings, of course, is that artificial trans fats were originally developed to replace another fat that began raising eyebrows during the late 1970s and early 1980s: natural animal fats, which are high in saturated fat.

"The industry responded, and thought they'd found the perfect alternative in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils," recalls Sheila Weiss, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition policy at the Washington-based National Restaurant Association (NRA). "But what we later found out is that trans fat is worse. Once research started showing that and scientific attention turned toward it, [trans fats] became a concern for the food industry."

According to Weiss, the foodservice industry isn't arguing against the idea that trans fats are bad, but foodservice operators would like to have more time to find suitable alternative oils. Thus, the trade group opposes New York City's ban, which lays down a July 1 deadline for foodservice operators to stop using oils that contain trans fats. By July 2008, trans fats must be removed from all end products, according to the New York ruling.

Of the NRA members that have switched oils already, many spent up to two years looking for the right alternatives, notes Weiss. For reformulations, many factors must be taken into consideration, not the least of which is taste, but also cooking techniques and temperatures, to name a few.

The good news is that most of the restaurants have been successful in maintaining the taste and texture of their foods, she adds.

NRA, along with the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association, recently applauded Los Angeles and Multnomah County, Ore. for the business-friendly approaches their officials are taking to help remove trans fats.

The California Restaurant Association is working with Los Angeles municipal officials to put into place a voluntary incentive program designed to help phase out the use of trans fats in restaurants and foodservice locations. In Oregon the Oregon Restaurant Association and officials in Multnomah County are working cooperatively to form a program to educate the public about trans fats.

"They were open to working with industry," says Weiss. "They could see our point of view, and understood that restaurants want to move away from trans fats."

Grocers can't wait

Right now no timeline for replacing trans fats hangs over the heads of supermarket operators. But that hasn't stopped many from taking action.

"This is definitely on our radar," confirms Kevin M. McFadden, category manager in bakery for St. Louis-based grocer Schnuck Markets. "We've removed trans fats from our products where it was practical to do so. Going forward, we'll consider testing alternative oils to see how they would affect the end product."

GMA/FPA's Earl says he's heard of several supermarket chains that are looking to reformulate private label products, as well as in-store bakeries, to get rid of trans fats.

Regional chain United Supermarkets began removing trans fats from many of its prepared foods more than a year ago, when it was developing a program called "Healthy Favorites" for its upscale Market Street stores.

"Throughout the deli department we offer healthier foods that contain no trans fats, are low in saturated fat, and are high in whole grains," explains corporate chef Chris Wilson. "We have a separate hot foods menu for those items."

Customers have been very responsive to the better-for-you offerings, which taste terrific, he adds. "My goal was to increase sales on the hot foods line by 10 percent. We've definitely met that goal."

The retailer uses a butter-flavored oil with zero trans fats per serving to saute items and make grilled sandwiches. Now it's testing two alternative fry oils; Both are low-linolenic canola oils, which fall under an emerging category of trait-enhanced oils.

The transformation to trans-fat-free frying oil could cost the company close to $100,000 a year, Wilson estimates. "We don't want to raise prices, though. We will look for makeup costs somewhere else."

One good sign is that during the time United has been investigating the alternative-oils market, more choices have sprung up, notes Wilson. "A year ago, when we really started investigating this, they weren't as readily available. Now more companies have products out, and are pushing them."

While the city of Lubbock hasn't proposed a trans fat ban, it's planning to issue a certificate to establishments that are totally trans-fat-free, notes Wilson, so the retailer would likely be recognized for its efforts.

However, the chef admits he's concerned about finding trans-fat-free packaged convenience items to complement the stores' offering in the deli.

Ukrop's Bishop figures that "sooner or later, something like what's happening in New York City will happen in Virginia." Since Ukrop's considers its foodservice offerings to be on par with restaurants, the retailer wants to be prepared.

Ultimately, the family-owned chain aspires to have all zero-trans-fat baked goods, says Bishop. Still, certain ingredients are proving particularly tricky to reformulate, she notes. "We're still looking for a suitable substitution for cake, icing, and pie crusts."

The chain has been pleased with the fruits of its labors in ridding other products of trans fats, she says. Particularly with Ukrop's signature items -- such as White House Rolls and fried chicken -- it was considered essential that taste, look, and texture not be compromised. With the rolls, the company substituted butter. With other baked goods made in its central bakery, the company went with palm-based oil. It chose zero-gram trans-fat soybean oil for frying.

"We've had very positive comments on our fried chicken," she notes. "When we evaluated the product using the new oil, we actually felt it was improved -- the color is more golden, and the texture is crispier."

Death of the doughnut?

With the sudden policing of trans fats, many in the industry are asking what the future may hold for product formulations. Is the doughnut as we know it -- now the poster child of trans fats -- doomed to extinction? And if partially hydrogenated oils were seen as a healthier alternative 10 years ago, how long will the current alternatives maintain their reputations?

There are no easy answers. "Saturated fats are just as bad as trans fats," says United's Wilson. "The government could choose to ban any hydrogenated oils. But that would be tough on margarine producers and others in the industry."

Robert Reeves, president of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils in Washington, maintains that he has confidence in the safety of the major alternatives, based on what current research has found.

"We hope and trust that these alternatives do not have significant health effects that would prevent them from being satisfactory alternatives," says Reeves. "The refiners of edible fats and oils that we represent have been actively working on trans fat alternatives for several years, and they've brought a wide variety to the market. I think we can look forward to even further improvements in the future."

Hopefully for supermarkets, those improvements will be readily available before the government begins taking a closer look at their products.
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