Food makers keep mum on trans fats

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Government and news-media scrutiny recently has focused on trans fat as the latest villain, but many food companies are steering clear of drawing attention to their efforts to reduce trans fat in their products, in part because they're not sure consumers actually care.

A flurry of consumer news coverage followed the announcement last week of the Food and Drug Administration's ruling requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat on nutrition labels by January 2006. But while Frito-Lay reiterated in a statement the steps it had taken earlier in the year to change labels and eliminate trans fats from its major product lines in anticipation of the FDA decision, most other companies were waiting to assess the concern expressed by consumers.

According to Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, some companies are seeking alternatives to trans fat and will wait until they find them to make announcements. Others will wait and see how big a market there is for foods without trans fats-which won't be apparent until the labeling has been under way for a while.

longtime debate

The debate on trans fat has raged for some time, said Suzette Middleton, external relations manager for Procter & Gamble Co., and "I don't think it's a consumer issue yet." Ms. Middleton, who has a Ph.D. in nutrition, said P&G has plans in place to change its labels to reflect trans fat and remove the trans fat found in its Torengos chips before the labeling rule goes into effect. But such changes will likely go unnoticed by consumers, as the company has no plans to talk about its efforts.

Despite the media coverage , she said, "nutrition and health falls way below taste, cost and convenience in terms of consumer food choices," something the company learned when its much-hyped Olean launch ended up being much less successful than expected. She attributes that in part to the vast array of conflicting health information with which consumers are bombarded.

Mr. Grabowski noted that food manufacturers turned to trans fat, or hydrogenated vegetable oils, in the mid `70s only after critics denigrated palm oil. The irony, he said, is that some companies are now turning back to palm oil. The Center for Science in the Public Interest put out an alert on trans fat in 1996.

Kraft Foods, oft-mentioned in news reports because it recently announced major initiatives to fight obesity, responded to media inquiries with the information that it plans to reduce or eliminate trans fats across most of its cookies and crackers by 2004 or 2005. The company is researching alternatives to trans fat for its Oreos, against which a recent lawsuit was filed (and quickly dropped) because of its trans-fat content, but a spokeswoman said "sandwich cookies are more challenging." Although Kraft posted information on trans fat in Oreos on its Web site and plans to use that medium to extend further information on the subject, she said the subject hadn't seemed to spark an overwhelming number of consumer calls.

Likewise, a Kellogg Co. spokeswoman said the company, maker of Keebler cookies and crackers, is "examining the best alternatives for all of our ... products and will be reducing or removing trans fatty acids over the next few years without compromising taste, texture and shelf life."

no support for labels

McKee Foods, manufacturer of Little Debbie cakes, is hardly reaching out to consumers to talk about the new trans-fat legislation. Since the bulk of its product portfolio includes trans fats, McKee is getting ready to change labels, but said it plans to do little else but support the labeling efforts that will give consumers quantitative information on trans fat content should they care. If anything, McKee would likely replace trans with saturated fat-hardly a health gain. But as McKee spokesman Mike Lorren said, "when consumers pick up a snack cake, they recognize they've decided to indulge."

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