ASA Responds to FDA Call for Trans Fat Labeling

Jul 03, 2003


On the announcement that the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) will require by January 2006, the labeling of trans fat content in packaged foods, the American Soybean Association (ASA), a trade group representing 26,000 U.S. soybean farmers, is advising consumers and food companies not to substitute saturated fats for trans fats, which are produced when vegetable oil is partially hydrogenated.

"Our biggest concern is that oils higher in saturated fat may be substituted by some companies who wish to remove trans fat content from their products," said ASA President Dwain Ford, a soybean producer from Kinmundy, Ill. "However, it is important to remember that trans fats are a small part of the diet compared to saturated fats, so consumers would not be well served if saturated fats replaced limited trans fats. Additionally, if companies want to totally avoid trans fats, there are alternative processing methods available."

Soybean oil is the world's leading vegetable oil and represents more than 80 percent of all the edible oil consumed in the United States. Soy oil and soyfoods in and of themselves do not contain any trans fats. Vegetable oils are hydrogenated in order to make them more solid and useful for certain food industry applications such as frying and baking. Trans fats also occur naturally in meat and dairy products, accounting for about one-fifth of the trans fat in our diets.

Instead of partially hydrogenating soy oil, food companies may be able to meet some of their specific needs by using a process called interesterification that rearranges the oil's fat molecules without adding hydrogen molecules, producing a product with few trans fatty acids. These alternative ways to process soy oil may slightly increase the cost of the finished product, but soy oil is relatively inexpensive and produces a healthy product that's low in saturated fat.

"Limiting fat intake is one element of a healthy diet," said Professor Barbara Klein, Director of the Illinois Center for Soy Foods at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. "It's important to understand that trans fats are a very small part of the diet compared to saturated fats. Trans fats contribute about 2 to 3 percent of total calories. This is relatively small when compared with saturated fat, which represents 12 percent of total calories."

Hydrogenated vegetable oils were first introduced into processed foods and food service applications to meet the American public's demand to replace the saturated fat found in lard, beef tallow, and tropical oils like those made from palm and coconut oils.

While oil that is hydrogenated will contain trans fat, liquid, non-hydrogenated soybean oil, such as that used for salad dressing and mayonnaise, does not contain any trans fat. Soybean oil also offers one of the few non-fish sources rich in omega-3 fatty acids essential for various body functions.

"Hydrogenated oils contribute desirable characteristics in foods without providing dietary cholesterol or high levels of saturated fat, which we know are harmful for the heart," said Professor Klein. "Consumers are encouraged to limit their intake of both saturated and trans fats as part of a healthy diet."

"Research funded by the soybean producer checkoff is developing new varieties of soybeans with improved functional and nutritional benefits," Ford said. "Two such varieties are already being grown in the United States."

One of these new varieties is a soybean that is even lower in saturated fat than traditional soybeans. With just one gram of saturated fat per 14-gram serving, zero saturated fat product label levels can be reached in formulations for salad oil blends, sauces, salad dressings and other applications.

The other relatively new soybean variety is called low linolenic. These soybeans produce oil that has half the linolenic acid level of commodity soybean oil, thus reducing the need for hydrogenation. In some instances, low linolenic soybean oil can be used to replace hydrogenated oils completely.

These new soybean varieties are now being grown in limited quantities, however, production is expected to increase in the next four to five years as genetics continue to improve crop yields.

"Now that trans fat content will be listed on food packaging, it's even more important for consumers to remember that healthy eating is about reducing total fat, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and eating heart-healthy products," Professor Klein said.

In November 1998, FDA approved a petition to allow health claim labels on products containing soybean protein stating that soy protein in a healthy diet reduces serum cholesterol and may reduce the chance of heart disease.