Trans Fat Fears Affect Food Industry

JOE ST. DENIS was fighting trans fat long before fighting trans fat was cool. And he was good at it.

Trans Fat Fears Affect Food Industry

JOE ST. DENIS was fighting trans fat long before fighting trans fat was cool. And he was good at it. It only took the 57-year-old former elevator mechanic a few days to come up with a formula to make his award-winning NoNuts pea butter, an alternative spread for people allergic to peanuts, free of trans fat. "I set up a little lab in my factory about 18 months ago after some mothers had expressed concern about trans fat," says St. Denis, president of tiny Mountain Meadows Food Processing Ltd. in Legal, Alta. "I used different combinations of products and, on my 32nd try, was able to totally remove the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil - the source of trans fat - and produce the exact same taste. It was actually quite easy to do."

St. Denis was well ahead of his time. Trans fat - formed when liquid oils are turned into solids, such as shortening, for the purpose of increasing the shelf life of processed foods - has become public enemy No. 1 at the grocery store. Numerous studies have linked the fat to heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's, and recent legislation in Canada and the U.S. requires large manufacturers to list trans fat content on special nutrition labels by January 2006. The substance isn't banned, but failing to remove the fat, which some nutrition experts call a "secret killer," could prove fatal to a firm's bottom line. "Packaged-goods companies aren't necessarily going to gain market share by going trans-fat-free," says Robert Fisher, a professor of marketing at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business. "But they could lose market share if they don't."

Voortman Cookies Ltd., based in Burlington, Ont., was one of the first to leave trans fat on the baking room floor. After his daughter Lynn nagged him for several years about removing the unhealthy fatty acids from the family recipe, company president Harry Voortman finally caved. But it took more than six months to find the right blend. "We initially were told it couldn't be done," says Adrian Voortman, the company's vice-president and Harry's son. "But a group of chemists cracked the code." Voortman Cookies finally began rolling out trans-fat-free products last month. The move gives the firm a competitive advantage, but carries a hefty price tag. The company had to purchase $500,000 in equipment to blend the new oil formula, as well as design new packaging; it is still adding up the costs associated with research and development. The result: an almost 10-per-cent hike in the price of its cookies.

Others are taking up the cause. McCain Foods Ltd. of Florenceville, N.B., boasts of its trans-fat-free Superfries. Kellogg Co. promises its breakfast-food line will be free of this bad fat by 2006. Toronto-based Weston Foods has pledged to eliminate trans fat from its baked goods by year's end, and has started to assess the trans fat content of all 5,000 items carried by Loblaw, its supermarket chain. In the wake of a U.S. lawsuit related to trans fat in its Oreo cookies, Kraft Foods Inc. also vows to remove the substance, while Frito-Lay Inc. says that by July, all of its snack products - including Doritos and Tostitos - will be free of trans fatty acids. "It's a very defensive position," says Fisher. "Companies are making sure their customers don't have a reason to switch."

Indeed, those unable to make the shift could be in a lot of trouble. McDonald's Corp. has struggled since September 2002 to remove trans fat from its french fry recipe - missing its own deadline set for early last year. The main problem? Flavour. "It's a big job," says Ron Christianson, spokesperson for McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd. "Our french fries are famous and we don't want to change their taste in any way."

Luckily for the fast-food giant, the new government regulations don't apply to restaurants. At least for now. But everyone in the food business is subject to the whims of consumers - and consumers are increasingly keen to remove bad fat from their diets. St. Denis, whose trans-fat-free pea butter is now available in 3,000 stores across Canada, is surprised companies are struggling to make the switch. "It's different for every product," he says, "but if I was able to do it by myself, big companies with professional labs should be able to figure it out." Their economic survival could depend on it.

Maclean's March 29, 2004