US agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) has stepped up production of its trans-fat alternatives driven by increasing market demand - and before new labelling rules come into force.
The €24.9 billion agricultural processor will expand its NovaLipid line of zero/low trans-fat oils and margarines at its Quincy, Illinois enzyme inter-esterification facility over the next year.
According to the Illinois-based firm, the facility is the first commercial enzyme inter-esterification facility in North America.
"ADM's unique enzyme process allows us to provide various zero/low trans-fat oils and fats that may be used in baking, confectionery, snack, frying and cereal products," said Paul B. Mulhollem, president of ADM.
Trans fatty acids (TFAs) are formed when liquid vegetable oils go through a chemical process called hydrogenation. Common in a range of food products - biscuits, chips, doughnuts, crackers - the hydrogenated vegetable fat is used by food processors because it is solid at room temperature and has a longer shelf life.
But research suggests that trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, causing the arteries to become more rigid and clogged. An increase in LDL cholesterol levels can lead to heart disease. As a result, the food industry is gradually slicing out their use as more consumers look for alternatives.
Pressure from consumer groups led to new rules in the US with the FDA amending the Nutritional Labeling Education Act to require the labelling of trans-fats on all nutritional fact panels by 1 January 2006. Brussels has yet to propose an equivalent for Europe, but on a national level certain countries are starting to make trans-free moves.
From the beginning of June last year, Denmark became the first country in the world to introduce restrictions on the use of industrially produced trans fatty acids. Oils and fat are now forbidden on the Danish market if they contain trans fatty acids exceeding 2 per cent.
And food makers are starting to respond to this development, removing TFAs and hunting for replacers.
"We have taken the decision to reduce trans fats levels to less than 1 per cent of total food energy, the level recommended by the World Health Organisation," a spokesperson for the Swiss food giant Nestlé recently told FoodNavigator.com.
The leading food company in the world said that its priority was to reduce the addition of TFAs in food products, pointing out that TFAs were also naturally present in relatively low levels in products containing full cream milk.
"We are looking to reduce the content by the end of the year," added the Swiss firm, confirming that new formulations are 'in the pipeline.'
Nestlé joins a raft of food makers - North American for the most part - that have already cut the trans-fat content.
Kraft foods said last month it had launched a trans-fat-free version of its iconic Oreo biscuit. Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo, removed the TFAs from its snack product Doritos last year and soup giant Campbells announced in February that its Goldfish crackers, sold through the company's Pepperidge Farm unit, would become trans fat-free. "The transition - which will involve reformulation of almost 165 individual products - will be largely complete by May 2004 and fully complete by September 2004," the firm said in a statement.
Uptake for alternative ingredients is likely to grow in parallel with the growth in food makers opting for zero trans fat formulations. And with the labelling rules cleared for use by 2006 in the US, this market is likely to see stronger growth than Europe, where no such rules have been agreed by Brussels, for the moment.
But replacing the role of a partially hydrogenated fat in terms of aerating, emulsifying, lubricating and providing textural, structural and flavour characteristics is a challenge for food developers.
Increasing numbers of ingredients suppliers are rolling out replacements for the TFAs. Last month, for example, Danish ingredients firm Danisco claimed its emulsifier/oil blends fitted the bill.
"These emulsifier blends with mixtures of non-hydrogenated oil offer the same properties as a partially hydrogenated shortening in most systems," said Jim Doucet, technical manager, emulsifiers at Danisco.
Earlier this year, Dutch nutritional oils and fats firm Loders Croklaan said it was looking to target market opportunities in the trans free market through its palm oil based ingredients, and is to build a new production plant in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
ADM's NovaLipid portfolio includes naturally stable oils, tropical oils, blended oils, and enzyme inter-esterified shortenings and margarines to provide alternatives in various food applications.
With $30.7 billion in food sales, in 2003 ADM leapt to the number three slot, from fifth place, in the global ranking for food groups, behind Nestlé with $61.6 billion and Altria (Kraft) with $31 billion.