Bakers Journal

TOUGH trans-ition for pastries

October 28, 2008
By ClÍona M. Reeves

In July, Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario
criticized the baking industry for the levels of trans fats in its
products, suggesting some parts of the industry aren’t doing enough
work to reduce or remove the fat from the goods they make.

The industry comes under fire for continued levels of trans fats in its products

 Bakeries, especially smaller ones, seem to be less aware of the health implications of trans fats.

In July, Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario criticized the baking industry for the levels of trans fats in its products, suggesting some parts of the industry aren’t doing enough work to reduce or remove the fat from the goods they make.

The federal government accepted recommendations from Health Canada’s Trans Fat Task Force in June 2007, asking the industry to reduce trans fat levels to five per cent of the total fat content in food products and five per cent in vegetable oils and margarines. It gave manufacturers and producers two years to comply with the voluntary guidelines, at which point the question of whether to make the guidelines into regulations would be addressed.

Trans fatty acids, or trans fats as they are more popularly known, are produced during a process called hydrogenation. Oils (which are liquid at room temperature) and certain fats which have a low melting point are subjected to hydrogenation in order to make them more stable, meaning that they develop a higher melting point (and so are solid at room temperature) and a longer shelf life. For a long time in the food industry, this has been an important function and has made it possible to produce food products which are easier to manufacture than with less stable oils, more appealing in flavour to customers, and shelf-stable for longer periods. Curiously, partial hydrogenation produces the highest levels of trans fats, where in fuller hydrogenation, the levels of trans fats fall.

For a long time, trans fats, which not only had functional advantages, were thought to be a great alternative to animal fats, whose artery-clogging saturated fats were linked to heart disease. The irony was that while saturated fats do raise the levels of “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) in the bloodstream, trans fats are worse. They not only raise LDL, at the same time they lower levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – a double health whammy.

Hence the concern Health Canada has in reducing Canadian consumers’ exposure to trans fats. Some food manufacturers have already made significant steps to reduce or eliminate trans fats in their baked goods. One of the quickest was Voortman Cookies Limited, of Burlington, Ont., which reformulated its entire line of cookies. As of April 2004, Voortman’s entire line became trans fat-free.

But the switch to trans fat-free is not just a matter of substituting one ingredient for another. Paul Hetherington, president of the Baking Association of Canada, explains some of the frustration in the industry regarding the move away from trans fats.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, the industry was actively encouraged to move away from animal fats and switch to partially hydrogenated vegetable fats, which were lower in saturated fats. Twenty years on, issues arise with trans fat, but we don’t yet have suitable alternatives, especially for the functionality in laminated products, such as croissants and puff pastry. Now, the industry is being told to go back to the animal fats they had been criticized for using. Going back to animal fats would mean returning to high saturated fat levels, altered flavours and problems for vegetarians. That being said, the industry has been working hard on reformulations and, so far, has done well. There is more work to be done, and it will take time, innovative thinking and understanding from consumers and groups like the Heart and Stroke Foundation that this is not something which can be magically fixed overnight.”

Coffee Time executive vice-president Dan Lepidas is concerned about the inclusion of some of Coffee Time’s and Robin’s Donuts’ products on the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s list of trans fat transgressors.

“We’re very concerned, not just about trans fats, but about fats in general,” Lepidas says. “We’re not a primary manufacturer of the mixes we use to make our products. While some of the mixes are proprietary to us, it’s the suppliers who do the formulations and source the ingredients. We’ve asked our suppliers to remove the trans fats from their formulations, and they’re responding very quickly. It’s not easy, because all fats, including trans fats, perform unique functions, and reformulating to achieve a similar result is a challenge. In some cases, suppliers are even discontinuing certain products which simply cannot be successfully reformulated with other ingredients. We’re also concerned that the government, in setting these targets and deadlines, has put the onus entirely on the food service industry, and not on the supply side. Applying the regulations to both sides would be fairer. Nonetheless, we are committed to removing trans fats. Our objective is to have all Coffee Time and Robin’s Donuts products free of trans fats by the end of 2008.”

Bakeries appear to be having a more challenging time dealing with trans fats, according to Miranda Abolfazli, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia working with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture. Her study of small and medium-sized bakeries in B.C. shows there are some gaps in understanding between scientists and bakers.

“Generally, the smaller the bakeries, the less likely they were to be aware of trans fats and their health implications,” Abolfazli says. “The medium-sized ones tend to be more aware, and have more resources and people to deal with the cost, time and work needed to develop reformulated products. There are exceptions among the smaller ones, like Red Square Bakery, in Burnaby, B.C., where they have worked hard to remove trans fats. Unfortunately, unless a product contains less than two grams each of trans and saturated fat per serving, you can’t put a ‘trans fat-free’ claim on your product, so there’s little business incentive for bakeries to divert attention from their day-to-day work. Many are understandably reluctant to overhaul their entire business in response to a scientific discovery which may be discredited next year. This does not bode well for the proposed ban on trans fats in B.C. by 2010.”

The solution, she says, begins with building bridges.

“There needs to be clearer communication with bakeries, especially those that are not members of the Baking Association,” Abolfazli explains. “Educational seminars or other programs are needed to help bakers see that getting rid of trans fats is not just a trend. At the same time, before any ban is proposed, government and scientists need to reach out to bakers and understand the business implications of such a huge change.” / BJ

Clíona M. Reeves, MA, is a freelance writer based in southern Ontario, and thinks she can hear a croissant calling her name.

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