BITING into an Oreo is a different kind of exercise than tucking into a robust tofu stew or getting one's jaws around a crunchy spinach salad -- more pure indulgence than something you do with the body's daily requirement for selenium or roughage in mind.
But today the sinful treat is a tad less sinful. Spurred by government-mandated changes to food labels that went into effect Jan. 1, Oreo's maker, Kraft, has dropped an unhealthful fat -- trans fat -- from the cookie's ingredient list.
The Oreo, with its soft white center epitomizing trans-fat creaminess, was once a public target of anti-trans campaigners. But similar, subtle changes have been made in foods all over the grocery store -- in pies, spreads, cookies, chips, puddings and frozen entrees, all with reworked formulations allowing their labels to proudly declare they contain zero trans fats per serving.
Medical experts welcome the new inclusion of trans-fat content on food labels and the removal of this heart-unfriendly fat from many of our foods. But the transition is still in its early days, with potential stumbling blocks for manufacturers and consumers alike.
Food labels, even if they declare that a foodstuff contains no trans fats per serving, can actually contain small amounts of the fat. Under the new labeling regulations, any food with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can declare its contents as zero grams. (In contrast, the cut-off in Canada is set at 0.2 grams.)
Those "zeros" could easily mount up, especially if one's idea of a serving is four times that of the manufacturer's. " 'Zero' conveys something that for some products they know to be false," says Dr. Carlos Camargo, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard Medical School. "If there's trans fats in the product, they should say 'less than 0.5,' or 'low,' or 'unable to measure,' or something -- but they shouldn't say 'zero.' "
Nutrition researchers still debate what the best, most heart-healthful trans fat substitutes are for foodstuffs such as pies and cookies that require fats to be hard at room temperature. Palm oil? Coconut oil? Stearic acid? The saturated fat found in animal fats?
"We all kind of dance around this because we just don't know what's a real good substitute right now," says Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.
And even with trans fats going, going, gone, nobody could call all these chips, pies, pizza and cookies health foods. Many of them will continue to contain plenty of saturated fat, unneeded calories devoid of vitamins, fiber and minerals, and impressive quantities of refined starch and sugar. A few formulations, in the effort to replace trans fats with saturated fats, have actually ended up with more total fat than they had before.
Some heart and nutrition specialists are concerned that the issue of saturated fats will be eclipsed by the current trans mania. Trans fats are deemed by many to be worse -- maybe significantly worse -- for the heart than are saturateds. But we eat much more saturated fat than we do trans fat (13% of our daily calories come from saturated fats, on average, compared with 2.6% for trans).
"Both should be reduced in the diet. It's not an either/or situation," says Dr. Scott Grundy, director of the center for human nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
In short, Americans shouldn't embrace the removal of trans fats as a license to gorge on snacks, as some people did with fat-free foods a decade ago.
Phasing out trans fats
To get a sense of the change taking place in packaged food, pick an aisle, any food aisle in the market and you'll probably find something that's had its recipe re-jiggered to kick out trans.
Changed, in the breakfast section, are toaster pastries and breakfast bars. Changed, nearby, are some cheesy fish-shaped crackers and woven wheat ones -- as are breaded chickens, kids' meals and a thin-crust pizza in the frozen food case, plus a whole bunch of potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips, popcorn and other crunchy items over in the snack foods aisle.
Crisco, of all things, traditionally made of vegetable shortening and the ultimate trans-fat offering, can now be bought in a trans-free formulation. ("Traditional" Crisco will remain available for all those who prefer it for their baking needs, says J.M. Smucker Co. spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher.)
Outside the store, perky Girl Scouts will soon be peddling freshly trans-free cookies including Thin Mints. The organization promises to purge trans from more of its cookies down the road.
"I think it's tremendous progress," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has campaigned for years for the removal of trans fats. "Partially hydrogenated oils' days are numbered ... I think they'll be gone within three to five years."
Who would have thought it would come to this?
Once upon a time, trans fats were deemed a wonderful and healthy additive for the human diet -- and a boon for agriculture too.
Solid at room temperature, like the saturated fats found in meat and milk, trans fat exists naturally at low levels in some foods. Then in the early 1900s, chemists figured out how to create it in the lab. They'd mix liquid oils with hydrogen gas and atoms of hydrogen would attach to the oils. The oils would then be stiff at room temperature, just like butter fat and beef tallow, possessed of a nice "plasticity" for baking.
Hydrogenation, as it's called, took off in the U.S. It was a handy way to make use of the huge quantities of cottonseed oil produced as a byproduct of the cotton-growing industry. Manufacturers used "partially hydrogenated" oils -- rich in trans fats -- as substitutes for lard in baking, and as a cheap butter-like spread: margarine.
The rise of trans fats was spurred on by a growing realization among health professionals that animal fats raised the risk of heart disease. It was helped, in the 1980s, by a move to rout saturated tropical oils from our foods (because these oils, extracted from kernels or fruits of palm trees, raised blood cholesterol in a heart-unhealthful manner). Trans fats were well-ensconced in our foods by the time bad news surfaced about them.
Then, in 1990, a troubling research paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Two Dutch scientists reported that they'd fed a certain type of trans fat to 59 men and women for three weeks -- and found that the diet not only raised so-called bad (or LDL) cholesterol in the blood, but also did another damaging thing: lowered levels of "good," HDL, cholesterol. (Saturated fats, although they raise bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol too.)
The authors' conclusion: Trans fats are "at least as unfavorable" as saturated fats.
Studies since then have confirmed this dual effect of trans and suggested this type of fat may do other harmful things as well, such as raising the levels of blood triglycerides and inflammatory proteins, which are linked to increased heart risk, or increasing the risk of diabetes.
Half a dozen studies in which large populations were tracked for years -- for example, 80,000 U.S. nurses, 44,000 doctors or 22,000 Finnish men -- have also found, on average, an increased risk of heart disease associated with eating trans. Harvard scientists have estimated that maybe 30,000 people die prematurely each year because of eating this fat.
The findings suggest that trans fats may be worse for the heart than saturated fats -- some estimate twice as worse, some as much as 10 times worse -- but this number isn't known with certainty.
Still, there was enough evidence for a government-appointed committee of U.S. scientists to recommend last year that Americans eat as few trans fats as possible. And the nation of Denmark was sufficiently convinced of the dangers of trans to ban, in 2003, the manufacture of processed foods with more than 2% of their calories derived from trans.
Mounting pressure from consumer advocates and medical specialists persuaded the Food and Drug Administration to rule that labels should list trans fats along with the saturated fats, starting this month.
The response of many in the food industry has been to get the trans out of food altogether. "That's always the benefit of labeling -- it's not just that people read the label but that it really forces industry to get creative with their formulations," says Alice Lichtenstein, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
Up till now, figuring out if this hidden fat was present in a food, and at what quantity, has been a kind of guessing game. Consumers could seek out the telltale words "partially hydrogenated" or "shortening" in the ingredients list. They could subtract saturated fat from the total fat in a serving (both of these have been listed on labels since 1994) and assume that trans made up some, or all, of the remainder.
Such cunning ploys may still come in handy, despite the new labels.
For one, a lot of foods in the supermarket don't yet list trans fats, even though they're supposed to: Some companies have been granted exceptions to use up old label stock before shifting over to the new ones.
Secondly, scanning the ingredients will help differentiate between products that don't have significant trans in them and products that flew by under the radar by having a hair less than 0.5 grams per serving.
But there's one place where scanning ingredients won't help. Restaurants do not have to have post nutritional information about the foods they serve. So anyone eating out (and that, for the average American, is about four times weekly) has little knowledge about what kind of fat is lurking in that sauce or stew.
The right formula
Not all food companies are opting to scotch their trans. Others are still seeking substitutes that impart the right taste and texture, at the right price, with acceptable shelf life for their wares.
(Creating a chicken pot pie with pastry that doesn't taste like cardboard is one knotty challenge.)
It is a tricky undertaking, because the consumer is picky and these fats have clear functions in food -- ones that would not be repeated by shoving in any old oil in their place.
Trans fats hold their shape, for example. In cake-baking, they're firm enough to trap tiny bubbles of air -- thus keeping the batter buoyant until the mixture has hardened and can retain its leavened form on its own.
Trans fats also make things crumbly. In pastry-making, the fat forms thin sheets to separate the individual layers of dough while they're baking, resulting in a nice, flaky crust.
Pastry made with liquid oil would be a solid lump. An oil-based cookie would be thin, flat and crunchy.
As for a doughnut, "You can fry a doughnut in liquid oil but it wouldn't be a doughnut, it would be floppy and oil would pour out of it onto you, and the oil would go into the chocolate on the surface and melt it off," says chemist Gerald McNeill, vice president of research, development and marketing for Loders Croklaan, a company that produces fats derived from palm oil for the food industry.
There are other, practical reasons why trans fats are attractive. They're far more stable than unsaturated, liquid oils, which tend to react chemically with oxygen in the air. Trans fats allow a cracker to sit around for months without developing stale off-flavors. Trans fats in deep fryers can be repeatedly heated to boiling without breaking down and going rancid.
Depending on the nature of their products, food manufacturers have taken a variety of tacks to get rid of trans fats. In some cases, they've been able to shift right over to liquid oil. Pepsi Co Inc. -- makers of Frito-Lay brand chips -- bought up vast quantities of the nation's polyunsaturated-rich, trans fat-free corn oil to fill its frying needs.
Other companies are looking to specialty liquid oils, many of them newly developed or still in the research phase. For example, the plant biotech firm Monsanto Co. has bred a type of soybean that contains low amounts of a chemically unstable oil, alpha-linolenic acid, resulting in a longer-lasting oil. In December, Kellogg Co. announced it would use this oil to help reformulate its products (though it didn't say which ones). Maureen Dirienzo, a nutritionist for Monsanto, said that the company was working on additional oils that could also substitute for trans fats in various applications -- including a soybean that makes larger quantities of a saturated fat that's solid at room temperature, stearic acid.
But it will take time before these new oils are available in the kinds of quantities and prices that food companies require. McDonald's, which publicly announced in 2002 that it would reduce trans in its cooking oils, declared it has so far failed to come up with a solution that meets its needs, and agreed to pay $8.5 million in a settlement last year after being sued for reneging on its pledge.
Companies have come up with different solutions for products that need some solidity of fat. Many have used blends of liquid oils (which are obviously too soft) and solid, saturated fats (which can be rock-hard at room temperature), to produce a fat that is ... just right.
The answer for trans-free Crisco, says Smucker spokeswoman Badertscher, was a blend of liquid sunflower oil and fully hydrogenated cottonseed oil. (Oils, when fully hydrogenated, make saturated fats, not trans fats.)
For Oreos, the solution was a mixture of palm oil (which is 50% saturated fat) and a new type of canola oil that's extra-stable. Kraft, which in a splash of publicity was sued in 2003 by a Bay Area anti-trans fat activist, has removed trans fats not just from Oreos but the majority of its snack products, including Triscuits, Wheat Thins and Jell-O pudding snacks, according to a company statement.
Palm oil was also the solution for butter-flavored Orville Redenbacher and ACT II popcorns after a year and a half of careful toil and at least 10,000 popping bags, says Pat Verduin, senior vice president for product quality and development at Con Agra Foods Inc. The company has altered the recipes in about 900 products -- although after 2,000 bakings they have not yet figured out how to make that great pot pie.
"We're close," Verduin says, but the company will not release the new pie till they're satisfied. "Taste is the No. 1 driver of people buying food," she says. "If they bring something home and their kids won't eat it, it doesn't matter how healthy it is, they're not going to buy it again."
Processed foods' future
Even as they applaud the response of the industry, nutrition scientists, heart specialists and consumer advocates scratch their heads a little about where America's processed food is bound. Some don't think the immediate solutions are the best ones, or the ones that companies will choose for the long haul.
Maybe Americans should retrain their palate -- to enjoy, for instance, a pie crust made of olive oil, suggests Dr. Meir Stampfer, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard. Maybe for the industry to expect a shelf life of a year for a baked good isn't reasonable: "What about our shelf life?" Stampfer says.
One of the biggest discussions involves palm oil, which raises LDL cholesterol.
"It is probably somewhat better. But why bother with palm oil if you can use the unhardened vegetable oils that we know are good for lipids and heart disease?" says Martijn Katan, a nutrition researcher at Vrije University in the Netherlands who has written key papers on trans fats. "The U.S. is one of the last places to reduce trans, and the food industries outside the U.S. have by now found that most of the trans in foods can be replaced by healthy oils."
The discussion is not made easier by the fact that different fats have different effects on LDL and HDL cholesterol, and other chemicals floating about in the blood -- and that it's not always easy to figure out their net effects on the heart.
Still, scientists appear optimistic that problems, if they crop up, will be caught and adjustments made.
"I guess I'm not as worried," says Lichtenstein. "We'll pick things up a lot quicker. We can get samples analyzed a lot quicker than they used to be. Today, there's more accountability as far as food companies go and in monitoring the food supply."