Coconut Benefits - Fat Substitute, Once Praised, Is Pushed Out of the Kitchen
By KIM SEVERSON and MELANIE WARNER
ob Pitts knows doughnuts. He fried his first one in 1961 at the original Dunkin’ Donuts shop in Quincy, Mass. Just by looking at the lumps and cracks on a misshapen doughnut, he can tell if the frying oil is too cool or the batter too warm. But Mr. Pitts, the company’s doughnut specialist, cannot find a way to make one that tastes good without using partially hydrogenated oil, now considered the worst fat in the American diet.
An artificial fat once embraced as a cheap and seemingly healthy alternative to saturated fats like butter or tropical oils, partially hydrogenated oil has been the food industry’s favorite cooking medium for decades. It makes French fries crisp and sweets creamy, and keeps packaged pastries fresh for months.
But scientists contend that trans fat, a component of the oil, is more dangerous than the fat it replaced. Studies show trans fat has the same heart-clogging properties as saturated fat, but unlike saturated fat, it reduces the good cholesterol that can clear arteries. A small but growing body of research has connected it to metabolic problems.
The Food and Drug Administration has declared that there is no healthy level in the diet and has ordered food companies to disclose trans fat amounts on food labels by January 2006.
That has sent Mr. Pitts and his counterparts at dozens of companies on an expensive and frustrating race to change America’s oil. In the last year, Mr. Pitts has tried 19 alternatives in the company’s test kitchen near Boston, but the doughnuts were either too heavy or so slick the icing slid off. Most simply didn’t taste good.
So far, only the most health conscious consumers are shopping to avoid trans fat. But food companies are betting that will change when the labeling law takes effect, and they have already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to get rid of trans fat without changing the taste of America’s favorite processed and fast foods.
"Whoever’s on that list of products with trans fats is going to be sweating bullets," said Harry Balzer, vice president for the NPD Group, a consumer research company based in Port Washington, N.Y.
At least 30,000 and as many as 100,000 cardiac deaths a year in the United States could be prevented if people replaced trans fat with healthier nonhydrogenated polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oils, according to a 1999 joint report by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
This and other studies led the government’s top medical advisers for the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences to declare in 2002 that they could not determine a healthful limit of trans fat, as they had for other dietary fats. The following year the government approved the labeling law.
The $500 billion food processing industry has long defended trans fat, starting in the 1970’s when scientists first raised concerns. But with the new labeling requirement looming and lawmakers searching for ways to hold food companies responsible for their customers’ health, getting rid of it has become an obsession.
"It’s the perfect storm for these companies: concern over litigation and legislation, as well as a market opportunity of baby boomers getting older and being more concerned with their health," said Dean Ornish, the director for the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., and a consultant to PepsiCo, McDonald’s and ConAgra Foods.
PepsiCo has already scrubbed trans fats from its Frito-Lay brand chips. Health-oriented grocery stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats refuse to sell any processed food that contains it. Last month, Gorton’s removed trans fat from its fish sticks, and Tyson Foods introduced frozen fried chicken products without it. Executives at Kraft Foods, ConAgra, Kellogg and Campbell Soup want to get trans fat out of most or all of their products by the beginning of next year.
Unlike diet-driven trends that filled store shelves with low-fat products in the 1990’s and, more recently, low-carb foods, the removal of trans fats does not have a strong consumer constituency. Although some market research shows that more than 80 percent of consumers have heard that trans fat is unhealthy, few shop to avoid it. Most seem to be like Joan Nicholson, 57, a New Yorker who retired to Boise, Idaho. "I read about cholesterol and trans fats and fatty acids and I try to keep it all straight," she said, "but I’m afraid I don’t do a great job of it."
Finding a substitute for partially hydrogenated oil is more daunting and considerably more expensive than food companies first imagined. That is because it is the perfect fat for modern food manufacturers. Produced by pumping liquid vegetable oil full of hydrogen with a metal catalyst at high heat, the fat stays solid at room temperature - an essential trait for mass-produced baked goods like crackers or cakes. But that is the very process that creates the dangerous trans fat.
The shortening-like oil is an industry workhorse. Its smoothness and high melting point make it a great medium for the creamy filling in an Oreo. In the deep-fat fryer, partially hydrogenated oil can take repeated heatings without breaking down.
It also helps products stay fresh longer on supermarket shelves. Small amounts keep peanut butter from separating. It is even found in products promoted as healthful, like Nutri-Grain yogurt bars and Quaker granola bars.
According to one survey on trans fat issued by the Food and Drug Administration in 1999, partially hydrogenated oil was in 95 percent of the cookies, 100 percent of crackers and 80 percent of frozen breakfast foods on supermarket shelves.
Margarine, which was very high in trans fat, was one of the first foods to change. ConAgra Foods in Omaha spent about a year creating trans fat-free versions of soft tub margarines like Parkay and Fleichmann’s. But the company is having a tougher time cracking the code on stick margarines, frozen dinners and microwave popcorn.
The company tested liquid soybean oil in its Marie Callender’s frozen dinners, but the oil puddled under the roasted potatoes and the sauce slipped right off the meat, leaving it barren and dry.
"It wasn’t very appealing," recalled Pat Verduin, senior vice president for product quality and development at ConAgra, which owns dozens of household brands, including La Choy, Hunt’s and Peter Pan.
At the Pepperidge Farm division of Campbell Soup, in Norwalk, Conn., puff pastry sheets and pot pies are causing the most trouble. Concoctions tested over the last year have made the crusts unpalatably dense and breadlike.
"We can’t get the flakiness and layering with these softer fats," said Scott Gantwerker, its quality assurance chief.
The company had more success with its Goldfish snack crackers, which after two years of tinkering are made with a sunflower oil blend and are free of trans fat. The oil, called NuSun, resists oxidation and spoilage. But it will not solve every company’s problem. Only 2 million acres of the sunflowers are planted each year, compared with 75 million acres of soybeans. As a result, the sunflower oil can cost 20 percent to 25 percent more, said Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association.
Feeding the Fast Food Giants
Finding a way to have businesses change the oil they use is even more problematic for the fast-food industry, which uses partially hydrogenated oil in deep-fat fryers and on griddles. Some chains, like Legal Seafood and Ruby Tuesday, replaced their oil with healthier versions, but they are the exceptions. Restaurants face no government labeling requirement.
"We’re not into knee-jerk reactions," said Yum Brands’ chief executive, David C. Novak, whose company owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. "We’ve seen things come and go." Yum Brands, Mr. Novak said, "is at the early stages" of trans fat replacement.
McDonald’s replaced beef tallow with partially hydrogenated soybean oil in 1990. In September 2002, the company vowed it would use healthier oil in its 13,000 stores in the United States by February 2003. Two years later, it is still serving up six grams of trans fat in a large order of fries and has given no indication of when that will change. Last week, the company agreed to a $8.5 million settlement of a lawsuit accusing it of misleading the public about its efforts to remove trans fat.
During a conference call in December, McDonald’s chief executive, James A. Skinner, offered few specifics on the company’s progress in eliminating trans fat. He would say only that levels had been reduced in fried chicken products by 15 percent. "We remain committed to reduce trans fats," he said.
McDonald’s problem, like that of many other giant food companies, is one of supply and demand. There simply is not enough reasonably priced replacement oil that is capable of retaining the signature flavor of a McDonald’s fry, said John Jansen, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Bunge, the world’s largest processor of oilseeds like soybean and canola.
Among the options McDonald’s considered is a new breed of oil called high-oleic canola, which can withstand repeated heating in a deep-fat fryer without compromising taste. But it is in short supply and expensive. The annual production of the oil this year will be about a billion pounds and McDonald’s would require about a third of that, Mr. Jansen said. At roughly 20 cents more a pound, the switch would cost the company an additional $70 million a year, according to figures offered by Mr. Jansen.
And until large users like McDonald’s commit themselves to it, oil-seed growers will not produce more. The scale of the problem becomes clear at the J. R. Simplot French fry and hash brown plant in Caldwell, Idaho, where Burbank russet potatoes become McDonald’s fries.
Before being frozen and shipped to restaurants and supermarkets, all frozen fries are given an initial light frying, usually in cheap partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Simplot food scientists recently developed the Infinity fry, cooked in a high-oleic canola blend. The fry takes well to baking in the school cafeteria, where it has found a market. It can also be fried in trans-fat-free oil.
The Infinity can cost up to 50 percent more than the average fast-food fry. As a result, it is expected to make up only 1 percent to 2 percent of food sales this year for Simplot, a privately held company with $3 billion in annual sales that was the first to sell frozen fries to McDonald’s.
Simplot’s real profit center is the huge fry factory just across a muddy parking lot from the test kitchen where the Infinity fry was born. There, 720,000 pounds of frozen fries made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil tumble off the line every day and are shipped to restaurants like McDonald’s.
"Logistically, trying to turn the restaurant industry on its head is essentially impossible on a ’let’s do it by May’ sort of basis," said Kevin Storms, president of Simplot’s food group. And then there is the matter of cost.
"Most restaurant customers," Mr. Storms said, "want a specific taste at a specific price."