UK arm of Nestle will cut type of fat linked to heart disease. The move reflects increasing pressure on food manufacturers to reduce the levels of trans fatty acids (TFAs) and comes in the same week that US government announces all food labels will have to list trans fats levels by 2006.
Recent scientific evidence suggests that consumption of trans fat raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ('bad' cholesterol) levels that increase the risk of coronary heart disease. The findings have encouraged consumer groups to pressurise the food industry to cut trans fats in foods.
Trans fat occurs in foods - such as snacks and fried foods - when manufacturers use hydrogenation, a process in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in order to turn the oil into a more solid fat.
"We are reformulating a small number of our brands that are applicable, to remove or minimise the hydrogenated vegetable fat content," a spokesperson for Nestle UK said this week.
The principal Nestle products to undergo changes are Toffee Crisp and Rolo which contain TFAs.
Nestle follows in the footsteps of US fast food giant McDonalds and Frito-Lay North America, a division of PepsiCo, who last year announced changes to TFAs. McDonalds said it would cook all French fries in oil with 48 per cent less trans fatty acids - although according to US consumer groups has since quietly reneged on its pledge - while Frito-Lay said it would remove trans fatty acids from its salty snacks, including Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos.
At the time a voluntary step, the US Department of Health & Human Services said yesterday that food manufacturers have three years to get their act in place, with new FDA rules dictating that by 2006 all food labels must list the amount of trans fatty acids.
Governments - eyeing their rising health bills - are turning increasingly to food as a means to prevent disease and cut costs. In the US, nearly 13 million Americans suffer from coronary heart disease, and more than 500,000 die each year from causes related to coronary heart disease.
The US food industry appears to be behind the new rules from the Food and Drug Administration. Commenting this week, Alison Kretser, director of scientific and nutrition policy at the industry body Grocery Manufacturers of America, said "the GMA fully supports quantitative labelling of trans fat that gives consumers clear and concise information about the content of trans fat in their foods".
The majority of consumers are unaware as to what actually constitutes a little or a large amount of trans fats. Once discussions in the future turn to zero and low trans fat terminology we can expect to see some more heated debates between manufacturer, consumer and government bodies.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) - an active consumer group in the US - came out in favour of the new regulations this week, but highlighted compromises en route to the final rule.
"The rule is weaker than the proposal issued by the FDA in 1999. For instance, the new labels will not place the amount of trans fat into the context of a day's diet," said the group.
The CSPI had urged the FDA to use the existing Daily Value for saturated fat-20 grams per day-as the new combined DV for saturated plus trans fat. That way, it says, consumers could look to one Daily Value for both heart-disease promoting fats. Canada requires food manufacturers to treat trans fat in that way.
According to the group, in a further retreat from its 1999 proposal, the FDA will allow food manufacturers to use claims like "low in saturated fat" on labels for products that could have high levels of trans fat.
"The new labels will let consumers compare trans fat content from product to product, and that will be a great step forward," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan. "It will be hard, though, for people to tell if a given number of grams of trans fat is a lot or a little. Five grams may not seem like a lot, but it is."
But the honour of truly tough rules on trans fatty acids goes not to the US, but to a European country. From the beginning of June this year Denmark became the first country in the world to introduce restrictions on the use of industrially produced trans fatty acids.
Oils and fat are now forbidden on the Danish market if they contain trans fatty acids exceeding 2 per cent. Can Europe's food industry expect to see the rules reflected in EU law? This is the hope of the Danes. Speaking at the time, Danish Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Mariann Fischer Boel said: "It is my hope that we will soon see EU regulation in this field. The next step should be common low EU limit values for trans fatty acids."
Of course, new rules bring in new opportunities. Swedish vegetable oils supplier Karlshamns announced recently that it has come up with cocoa butter replacers - Akopol LT15 S and Akopol LT15 E - that have the same functional characteristics as the traditional type of CBR but with a low trans fatty acid content.