McDonald’s seeking viable fat alternative

Concern over a link between the trans-fatty acids used as artificial fats by food processors and the rising incidence of heart disease has prompted at least one major food company to search for alternative products.While most companies are adopting a wait-and-see...

Concern over a link between the trans-fatty acids used as artificial fats by food processors and the rising incidence of heart disease has prompted at least one major food company to search for alternative products.

While most companies are adopting a wait-and-see approach to the growing body of evidence critical of trans-fatty acids, including a recent study out of Harvard University, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada is already experimenting with other products.

Terry Williams, McDonald’s quality assurance manager, says as soon as testing provides ‘a viable alternative [to trans-fatty acids] to go to, we will do it.’

The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, which was published recently in The Lanctet, showed that women in the highest consumption category of trans-fatty acids were 70% more likely to suffer from heart disease.

The report supports the findings of earlier studies.

In order to qualify to label their products ‘cholesterol-free’ or ‘low cholesterol,’ major food processors have been substituting unsaturated fats for saturated fats.

Saturated fats contain cholesterol, while unsaturated fats do not.

But saturated fats have a molecular structure that facilitates food processing, so manufacturers have altered the unsaturated fats to act as saturated fats. The altered fats are known as trans-fatty acids.

McDonald’s products containing trans-fatty acids are Chicken McNuggets, McChicken Sandwich and Filet-O-Fish.

Other companies using trans-fatty acids include the makers of many brands of margarines, cookies, crackers, potato chips, baked goods and deep-fried foods.

But officials at companies such as Ault Foods, Procter & Gamble and Nabisco Brands say the research is still too inconclusive to make changes in product content.

Bob Fisher, head of research and development at Campbell Soup, says while the public is more in tune with health issues and buys products based on their nutritional claims, trans-fatty acids have yet to become a consumer concern.

‘Obviously, if it becomes a consumer issue, we’re going to have to deal with it,’ Fisher says.

Mary Enig, a nutrition consultant and former research associate in the department of biochemistry at the University of Maryland, says the wait-and-see approach is likely to pose a major public relations problem for the food industry.

‘This [Harvard University] study is going to open up the floodgates,’ Enig says.

‘The food industry has created a health issue to help market their products, and now I anticipate they’re going to have a lot of trouble explaining away the inappropriateness of what they’ve done,’ she says.

Fuelled by complaints from nutrition experts that altered fats raise cholesterol levels in humans the same way saturated fats do, and that they lower high-density lipoprotein, a healthy form of cholesterol, Ottawa is reviewing existing legislation on nutrition labelling.

Current laws require food processors to list saturated fats, but not their saturated fat equivalents, specifically trans-fatty acids.

Most foods labelled ‘cholesterol-free’ contain trans-fatty acids.

Mary Cheney, head of the nutrition evaluation division of Health and Welfare Canada, says changes to the labelling laws will be made after the publication of a study of trans-fatty acids by the U.S. Department of Agriculture later this year.

Cheney says it is expected that ‘cholesterol-free’ claims will be limited to products that are free not just of saturated fats, but of saturated fat equivalents, specifically trans-fatty acids.

But Bruce Holub, a leading nutritional expert at the University of Guelph who pioneered trans-fatty acid research with his contribution to the ‘Margarine Report’ in 1979, says labels should not only list saturated fats, but trans-fatty acids.

Existing legislation prohibits listing trans-fatty acids.

Laurie Curry, technical director of the Grocery Products Manufacturers of Canada, says food manufacturers are only complying with existing laws and adds if consumers are confused about ‘cholesterol-free’ labelling, the government is to blame.

Curry says when Canada’s existing legislation came into effect in 1988, it was understood the federal government would educate consumers about the meaning behind the labelling.

‘We wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now if the government had followed through with a stronger educational approach,” she says.

Cheney says when the industry met with Health and Welfare to discuss proposed changes to labelling laws, an appeal was made to the industry to make the appropriate changes regarding ‘cholesterol-free’ labelling without waiting for legislative change.