A survey of three large food manufacturers have found that they were among those who moved fast to change their processing methods and ingredients to offset the consumer and regulatory backlash against trans-fatty acids.
FoodProductionDaily.com surveyed Unilever, Nestle and Northern Foods to get an indication of how the industry is coping with the switch away from trans fats, and the resulting effects on operations and products.
In the main, the survey found that the three processors were among those who anticipated a growing consumer backlash against trans fats and the regulatory fall-out that would inevitably follow.
Unilever said it started to reduce trans fats from its products in the mid-nineties and that the process was ongoing.
Unilever said the specifications of the final product drives the process changes. Where increased stability is required, products are exposed to "trans-free" compositions. The manufacturer said that this was a challenge, but resulting in healthier products.
Meanwhile Nestle said that since 2002, about 25,000 tonnes of trans fats had been removed across its product portfolio and by the end of 2006.
The company said 95 per cent of its products currently comply with its policy that trans fats do not make up more than three per cent of a normal consumption of its products, or one per cent of the total daily energy intake as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Nestle, while not giving details of process changes, said that replacing trans fats with healthier substitutes has resulted in some products becoming creamier.
The removal of trans fats has also reduced the overall fat content of some products. Nestle said that oxidation problems associated with trans fats substitutes have are controlled through antioxidants, technology, recipes, packaging and other means.
Northern Foods said it had been working over the past couple of years to remove trans fats from its foods and had succeeded in its aims for all own-label biscuits and ready meals.
The company said it expected to be trans fat free by early 2007.
Northern Foods said that it had worked with suppliers to ensure the quality and performance of its products remained the same. It said that ingredient changes had been part of rolling update and modification of product recipes.
Food processing equipment manufacturers are developing new products that are capable of handling more volatile fats and oils, which are likely to become standard as more companies switch over and seek substitutes to trans fats.
However, while recipes and processes have changed to accommodate substitute oils and fats, their increased volatility has resulted in only a small change in equipment and machinery used in plants so far according to the results of the survey.
Northern Foods and Nestle said that no changes were necessary, while Unilever said that the increased use of palm oil, lauric fats and other substitutes had led to only a small requirement for new equipment.
Where machinery changes have been necessary, they have been related to improved crystallisation conditions, which have in turn led to longer residence times and higher cooling rates during processing.
The cost of the changes, including sourcing trans fats substitutes, varied between countries according to Nestle.
While unable to provide an overall cost for the changes so far, Nestle said the change to trans fats substitutes was part of its global research and development budget, which was about 1bn euros in 2005.
Unilever said it had made significant investments in decreasing trans fats levels in its products, while Northern Foods said changes had been introduced on a rolling basis and the costs had been integrated as part of product development activity.
The results from the processors indicate that while the industry is acting upon consumer and regulatory pressure to make food healthier, the transition has been relatively painless and in some instances, beneficial to companies in terms of product quality.
Trans fats have historically been a common ingredient in thousands of products, favoured by processors because of their chemical stability, long shelf life, and low price.
However, research success studies have shown that when too much 'bad' cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain resulting in atherosclerosis and other health problems.
Other fats and oils tend to be less stable and more prone to oxidation. Processors have had to change the formulation of some products and processes to accommodate trans-free fats.
The use of trans fats is global, but countries and even areas within countries are at different stages of tackling its use.
The US has led the way against trans fats use, with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year imposed label requirements upon manufacturers, forcing them to disclose trans fats nutrition panels, enabling consumers to make an informed choice. New York has banned trans fats use across the city.
In Europe is in the process of considering action against trans fat use, while in 2003 Denmark, established regulations stating that fat content should contain no more than two per cent trans fats.
The regulations also oblige food makers to specify whether this trans fats is synthetic or naturally occurring.
Regulations limiting or banning trans fats use are at different stages around the world, but the companies ultimately responsibly for putting it into food are working towards using healthier substitutes regardless.