On Tuesday, June 16, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a firm, 3-year timetable for food manufacturers to eliminate trans fats. While many restaurants and suppliers have been taking measures for years to reduce and remove the partially hydrogenated oils that produce trans fats, the ruling will pose a costly challenge to some sections of the industry.

Under the new FDA regulations, partially hydrogenated oils no longer fall into the category of food additives “generally recognized as safe.” This statement follows findings that partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol levels that pose a danger to heart health. The FDA has had trans fat on its radar for years, but this new announcement defines strict guidelines and sets a date for the completion of the phase-out.

“There was an original shock when the FDA proposed this ban a few years ago, but what we have now is a firm direction,” says Richard Galloway, a consultant for the independent, third-party resource for the soybean industry, QUALISOY. “A great deal has been done between food companies and their suppliers since November of 2013, but this will have to prompt a lot of additional action.”

The shift toward trans-fat free frying oils has been underway for years, and most restaurants have replaced partially hydrogenated frying oils with other options that have fewer health risks but require oil to be switched out more frequently. The McDonald’s Corporation completed this transition in 2008, and other full-service brands, like Applebee's, targeted and removed trans fats from their menus even earlier.

The main concern, however, is not just for the oil used in fryers, but in many baked goods like pizza crust and pastry dough, which often rely on partially hydrogenated oils to keep costs low and maintain the taste and consistency that is difficult to achieve with liquid oils.

One option that satisfies the greatest number of applications, Galloway says, involves the use of what are known as interesterified oils—oils put through a process to change the way the triglyceride molecules bond to each other.

“You end up with a product that’s physically and chemically similar to a partially hydrogenated oil,” he says. “The benefit is that with this system, you get virtually the same result and don’t produce any trans fats at all.”

The problem is that the process requires a more expensive enzyme than what is used for partially hydrogenated oils, and the capacity is limited. In other words, it’s going to cost operators, and some products—especially baked goods that require oils with a crystalline structure—still won’t be able to achieve an equivalent texture. Whole-food products like butter and lard can act as suitable alternatives, but many operators worry about the amount of saturated fat these ingredients add to labels.

Luckily, the three-year timeframe provided by the FDA gives the foodservice industry time to experiment with consumer testing, shelf life measurement, and recipe tweaks to accommodate the changes.

“I think all of these problems can be solved over time,” Galloway says. “We have to realize that in the world we live in now, these alternatives are going to be more expensive until there’s more competition, but we see this recent move by the FDA as a positive one from an industry standpoint, since operators can be definitive about what has to take place.”

The FDA estimates that this move could prevent thousands of deaths from heart attacks each year, and reduce the number of people affected by coronary heart disease. 

By Emily Byrd

Finance, Food Safety, Industry News, Legal, Applebee's