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FDA's transfat ban may boost food prices

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The Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to require the food industry to remove artificial trans fats from the food Americans eat. However, the FDA emphasized that it would give food manufacturers time to change recipes.

By doing this, it was hoped, the rule change would minimize market disruptions and allow corporations to spread over several years the estimated costs of some $8 billion.

Common artificial trans fats are made largely through a process called “hydrogenation,” when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil. Those familiar with organic chemistry will recall that this process causes the chain of carbon atoms to become fully saturated with hydrogen atoms, leaving no double bonds. This gives rise to the alternate name of “saturated” fat.

High fat consumption has long been recognized as detrimental to health. Trans fats consist of triglycerides containing saturated fatty acids, like oleic and elaidic. Food companies use them as effective preservatives and solidifiers.

Regrettably, many of our favorite foods contain trans fats. But the National Academy of Sciences concludes there is no safe level of trans fat consumption.

In 2004, Denmark legislated to restrict trans fats. In 2006, New York City banned trans fats from restaurants. While the British Medical Journal called for virtual elimination, a vacillating government called merely for voluntary curbs.

Although the Grocery Manufacturers of America says that, since 2005 manufacturers have lowered trans fats by more than75 percent, the FDA maintains 12 percent of packaged foods still contain them.

Between 2003 and 2007, McDonald's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken resisted — but then complied — with mandated trans fat restrictions.

McDonald's website claims there is no trans fat in any of its food. Sara Lee's website, however, reveals only partial conversion. For instance, their whole wheat bread, buns and rolls have no trans fats. No such assurance applies to their muffins or “Thin-Style Buns.”

The label on Sara Lee's “Whipped & Fluffy Strawberry French Cheesecake” shows “0 trans fat.” However, shoppers should be aware that if the trans fat content of a serving is less than 0.5 grams, the producer can, under FDA rules, show the content as “0.” Doubtless, the FDA will eliminate this loophole, together with the covert massaging of serving sizes.

While Heinz and Nestle are reportedly ahead of the curve in eradicating trans fats, likely they have incurred considerable costs to do so and that is likely passed on to consumers. Kraft Foods has, according to director Peter Wilson, invested 30,000 hours in trying to convert its famous Oreo cookie. It is too soon to tell whether Oreos will retain their classic taste.

For some, however, costs have proved to be low, especially as new trans fat-free cooking oils with extended “fry lives” have been developed from soybeans and sunflowers.

A Wendy's spokesman declared the cost of its switch away from trans fats was “cost neutral.” The owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken's third-largest franchise, John Neal, said switching to trans fat-free oils costs mere “pennies.”

While people may become healthier as a result of the FDA's edict, they may pay more for certain foods.

John Browne, a former member of Britain's Parliament, is a financial and economics columnist for Trib Total Media. Contact him at johnbrowne70@yahoo.com.

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