Fear of Frying

Maybe this all sounds nefarious, food and oil companies making us afraid in order to sell us products that are hopefully healthier. And maybe we'll find out, like we did with saturated fat, that the cure is worse than the disease. But consider for a moment where we might be now if power plants and oil companies invested in cleaner fuels with the same zeal that Nabisco pushes its trans-free Oreos.

A Brief History of Trans Fats

The beginning of the end for trans fats came in 1994, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA to add trans fats to the Nutrition Facts panels on packaged foods. CSPI, a consumer watchdog that receives most of its funding from subscribers to its consistently alarming Nutrition Action Healthletter, based its petition on evidence that trans fat consumption increases the risk of heart disease. Subsequent research has also suggested associations with diabetes, infertility, and brain damage. In 2003, the FDA announced that, beginning in 2006, packaged foods companies would have to list the trans fat content of products on their Nutrition Facts panels.

Since the FDA announcement, trans fats have produced considerable controversy in the press, the courts, and the halls of local governments. New York City, Philadelphia, and Montgomery County in Maryland have all banned foods containing artificial trans fats, and at least eighteen other cities and states are considering bans, labeling requirements, or voluntary trans fat elimination programs. The other side has scored victories, too: the National Restaurant Association has defeated at least seven local trans fats bans, and in May, US District Court Judge James Robertson dismissed a lawsuit that accused Kentucky Fried Chicken of not telling customers that it used trans fats. Meanwhile, the Center for Consumer Freedom has been crying nanny state: in a New York Daily News op-ed last fall, CCF executive director Rick Berman described the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as “the iron fist in the latex glove.”

Beneath the superficial fuss over regulation, though, food producers have been steadily moving away from trans fats. By the time Judge Robertson dismissed the KFC case, the company had already voluntarily eliminated trans fats, as had a very long list of other companies, from Applebee’s and Arby’s to Taco Bell, Starbucks, and the giant institutional food supplier Sodexho. Frito-Lay, the market leader in the $25 billion snack industry, announced its plans to eliminate trans fats from Doritos, Tostitos, and Cheetos in 2002, a year before the FDA even announced its rule. In 2003, Kraft, the nation’s biggest food company, also decided to eliminate trans fats from many products.

From a business perspective, such moves seem counterintuitive. The FDA, after all, did not require any reduction in trans fat content, and a proposed footnote that would have warned consumers about health risks associated with trans fats was scrapped. In 2005, research showed that only 18% of consumers surveyed believed trans fats to be a major nutritional concern; most didn’t even know what trans fats were. So why would a food company advertise the fact that many of their products contain or used to contain a potentially dangerous ingredient? Why spend millions of dollars to reformulate products that people thought were just fine?

The answer, of course, is that “just fine” is never good enough. Rather than fighting regulation and obfuscating science, big food companies have been cultivating the fear of trans fats as a way to market new and improved trans-free products. Trans fats’ ongoing exit from the American food system is due less to the regulatory actions of any government—nanny, iron-fisted, or latex-gloved—than to an underlying tenet of the food industry: Fear sells.

Ironically, partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of trans fats, actually served as a model for how the food industry can cash in on fear: for twenty years, partially hydrogenated oils served as the perfect solution to the fear of saturated fat.

Hydrogenation converts liquid oils into solid fats. In 1905, Procter and Gamble began blending fully hydrogenated cottonseed oil with liquid oil to produce a semi-solid fat that could be used to make soap and candles. The spread of electricity made candles increasingly obsolete, but luckily for P&G, hydrogenated oil looked enough like lard or butter to be recognizable to lard-eating Americans. The name “Krispo” was already taken by a Chicago cracker company, so P&G began selling their new product as “Crisco” in 1911, advertising it to women as “An Absolutely New Product, A Scientific Discovery Which Will Affect Every Kitchen in America.”

By the early 1940s, reliable partial hydrogenation allowed Proctor and Gamble to skip blending the fully hardened oil with liquid oil and go directly to semi-solid perfection. Due to their high smoke-point, partially hydrogenated oils allowed restaurants and factories to deep-fry large batches of food without changing the oil in the fryers too frequently. Partially hydrogenated oils do not turn rancid quickly, so snacks made with those oils could stay perky for months in a warehouse, vending machine, or convenience store. And partially hydrogenated oils were cheap, because by 1930 they were typically made from the oil left over after crushing heavily subsidized soybeans to make animal feed. In the 1940s, about two-thirds of American fat consumption came from butter, tallow, or lard, while about one-third came from vegetable oil; by the mid-60s, that ratio had reversed-about two-thirds of our of fat consumption came from vegetable origin, including both liquid soybean oil and partially hydrogenated oils.

The golden age of partially hydrogenated oils began in 1961, when the physiologist Ancel Keys graced the cover of Time magazine, warning readers that saturated fat raised cholesterol and cholesterol caused heart disease. Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on epidemiological research haven’t proven Keys exactly right. But the villainy of saturated fat nevertheless has become deeply institutionalized in the American medical and nutritional establishment, and trans fats have reaped the benefits. In the 1960s and ’70s, it became common for health-conscious consumers to replace butter with margarine, which at that time was typically composed of about 25% trans fats. In 1989 and 1990, many restaurants and food manufacturers began to use partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, in part because of pressure from activists to reduce the use of lard, beef tallow, palm oil, and coconut oil. “Overall,” CSPI wrote in its 1988 book Saturated Fat Attack, “hydrogenated oils don’t pose a significant risk.” Over the past twenty years, the food industry developed tens of thousands of products made with partially hydrogenated oils, which were cheap, kosher, made in the USA, and allowed marketers to promote their products as free of saturated fat and therefore presumably healthier.

Some nutritional scientists had questioned the safety of trans fats as early as 1944. But in 1990, two Dutch researchers, Ronald Mensink and Martijn Katan, published research in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that trans fats raised “bad” cholesterol and lowered “good” cholesterol. Katan told me about a convivial dinner with representatives of various edible oil companies and trade groups who quickly fell silent when he showed them his data. One might reasonably have expected that “big food” would follow the example of big tobacco or the nuclear power industry: deny the good science, buy some bad science, and try to avoid regulation. And in fact, a representative of an oil industry trade group told me that a coalition of trade groups, food companies, and edible oil manufacturers had indeed funded a US Department of Agriculture researcher named Joseph Judd to study trans fats, presumably to prove Mensink and Katan wrong. But Judd’s results, published in 1994, only confirmed Mensink and Katan’s findings, driving CSPI to petition the FDA for labeling.

Almost as soon as the FDA began to consider CSPI’s petition, the smart money moved to trans fat alternatives. The executive director of the National Sunflower Association, Larry Kleingartner, told me that his organization “jumped on [trans fats alternatives] in 1995 in anticipation of trans fat being an issue at some point.” By 1998, the National Sunflower Association developed and commercialized a new breed of sunflower called NuSun. NuSun oil is stable without partial hydrogenation, and Frito-Lay is a major buyer. In 2005, Kellogg announced that it would replace partially hydrogenated oils in some of its products with Monsanto’s low-linolenic soybean oil. Low-linolenic soybean oil, made from specially bred beans, does not require partial hydrogenation. Monsanto started developing low-linolenic breeds in 1995, the year after CSPI submitted its petition to the FDA. Other companies and trade groups had their own low-linolenic soybean projects by 1999, including a DuPont-Bunge partnership, the Iowa Quality Agriculture Guild, and the United Soybean Board.

Eliminating trans fats is not easy. In order to eliminate trans fats from Doritos, Tostitos, and Cheetos, Frito-Lay modified 187 production lines, did 250 analyses of prototypes, and spent $22 million. Cookies, pastries, and pie crusts are especially difficult to reformulate because they require some solid fat. Low-linolenic soybean oils and the new sunflower oils are liquid, so they don’t work in baked goods. (Palm oil has been quietly making a big comeback.) Most importantly, products reformulated to eliminate trans fats must look, taste, feel, and cost the same as they did before the change. The food industry professionals I have interviewed all shudder at the memory of New Coke, which was introduced as a replacement for regular Coca-Cola in 1985. New Coke was a marketing disaster because it tasted different. One edible oil scientist explained that even a small drop in sales could cost a product manager his or her job.

On the other hand, as a former executive for a major food company asked me, what’s to stop someone from buying generic Oreos? Both the generic and the name brand are made from similar combinations of wheat, corn, and soy, they taste basically the same, and the generic version is usually cheaper. The answer is that a major national brand can add value to its products by amplifying perceptions of risk. Even if they malign ingredients they once embraced, and even if they spend a lot of money on research and development, food companies can ultimately profit by drumming up fear of some health risk and then selling a product that addresses that risk. When magazines and newspapers publish stories like “How KFC Went Trans-Fat Free,” in which a Business Week reporter sat with senior executives while they taste-tested new trans-free fried chicken, you know that access to an otherwise secretive industry has been granted strategically. Such stories raise awareness about trans fats and portray the company’s new products as healthier. They also soothe investors like J.P. Morgan, which categorized 40 percent of Kraft’s portfolio as “not so healthy” in a 2003 report on companies exposed to obesity-related risk. Three months later, Kraft announced its plans to go trans free.

When I started studying the social aspects of trans fats in 2004, I routinely had to explain what they were. Now every week I see news stories and press releases announcing that another food company, restaurant chain, or grocer has reduced or eliminated trans fats. According to the market research firm Mintel, the number of new low- or no-trans packaged foods launched in 2006 more than doubled the number of launches in 2005. That statistic does not even include reformulations of existing products like Doritos or Triscuits, nor does it include KFC, T.G.I. Friday’s, Denny’s, or any other restaurant. An American Heart Association poll in 2006 found that 84 percent of consumers had heard of trans fat, and about half of those could correctly cite the health effects associated with them.

Considering how little people knew about the subject only two years ago, it’s likely that packaged food and restaurant advertising is largely responsible for this heightened awareness. Health scares like trans fats help companies differentiate their products in an increasingly crowded market. Of course, bigger companies are in a better position than smaller competitors to buy these more expensive alternative oils, to do the testing required to reformulate products, and to absorb those costs without increasing consumer prices. A 2005 study showed that the original 1993 Nutrition Facts labeling caused many small companies to drop out of food markets, increasing the market share for large companies. I wouldn’t be surprised if trans fat labeling and the local bans have a similar impact.

So, with trans fats leaving the building, what new fear can food manufacturers use to differentiate their products? At this year’s American Oil Chemists’ Society meeting, everyone was talking about omega-3s, nutritionally essential fats which are totally destroyed in the process of hydrogenation. In the new low-linolenic soybeans, omega-3s are bred out to make the oil more stable. Most Americans already don’t consume enough omega-3s, and omega-3 deficiency has been associated with heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Not concerned that you have an omega-3 deficiency? You will be. Omega-3-enriched products are now the strongest sector of the so-called functional foods market. In the United States, sales of omega-3-enriched foods grew from approximately $100 million to more than $2 billion in the last four years. In May, Cargill unveiled a new omega-3 ingredient that can be added to almost any food product. Monsanto projects that by 2012 it will commercialize a breed of soybeans that is both low-linolenic and has enhanced omega-3s. Even Hormel, the company that manufactures SPAM, is selling an omega-3 additive.

Maybe this all sounds nefarious, food and oil companies making us afraid in order to sell us products that are hopefully healthier. And maybe we’ll find out, like we did with saturated fat, that the cure is worse than the disease. But consider for a moment where we might be now if power plants and oil companies (as in petroleum) invested in cleaner fuels with the same zeal that Nabisco pushes its trans-free Oreos. What might the world look like if the Toyota Prius were less of a niche product, and more like a Dorito?

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