Trans fat is tasty, common, and, according to some experts, poison. Found in cookies, French fries, and even some baby formulas, it is suspected of causing everything from clogged arteries to Alzheimer’s. But if you’ve been watching television stations like CTV or reading newspapers like The Globe and Mail in the past year, you already knew that.
You probably also already know about the sudden media flare-up against trans fat that almost instantly placed food manufacturers on the defensive. The media has paid heavy attention to a new labelling law, coming into effect in January 2006 which will see most producers of pre-packaged foods having to list the amount of trans fat on a product’s “nutrition facts” table. On its own, this new law is not a strong enough incentive for food companies to eliminate trans fat from their products. Food manufacturers are well aware that most of us don’t consider nutritional information when buying pre-packaged food. But the critical coverage of trans fat by media outlets has quickly forced them into action. Coverage of the law suggested the need to do more – like enact the outright banning of trans fat – rather than just label them.
In August 2003, CTV’s medical correspondent, Avis Favaro, and producer Jenny Wells pre-designed a series of stories for CTV and the Globe based on the testing of food for trans fat. The testing was designed to show people that significant amounts of trans fat were in the food they were eating, like the popular children’s snack Goldfish.
“You can label trans fat,” says Favaro, “but if people don’t know what trans fats are, it doesn’t mean anything. We were trying to make something that was going to be labelled relevant to people, and then raise the question, ‘Do they need to be there?'”
Food manufacturers use trans fat because, when compared to other types of fat, it is inexpensive, makes food taste better, and last longer. Found mostly in processed grain products and deep-fried food, trans fat comes from a chemical process called “partial hydrogenation,” whereby liquid oils are converted into a semi-solid form. The consumption of trans fat is strongly linked to raised cholesterol levels, heart disease, and possibly even lends to stunting fetal growth and diabetes.
“The food industry has known for a long time that trans fat is unhealthy,” says Toronto-dietician Rosie Schwartz. It has gotten away with it because, until recently, consumers haven’t contested. “The public has wanted products that have a shelf-life of forever,” she continues, “and so when we as consumers want things to last forever, it does come at a cost.” Schwartz believes that if Canadians are to reduce the amount of trans fat they eat, both consumers and the food industry need to make changes.
Those changes started within weeks of CTV and the Globe‘s initial reports, as other media outlets jumped on the trans fat bandwagon. Public-health reporter Andr? Picard, who wrote the trans fat stories in the Globe, doesn’t believe that the Globe/CTV team had a big impact on the trans-fat coverage, but he does agree that it certainly had an impact on how consumers looked at their food. “To me,” says Picard, “the most positive aspect about the trans fat coverage is that it has prompted people to read labels more carefully; it has helped create more informed consumers.”
These more informed consumers demanded trans-fat-free options and in response, Burlington-basedVoortman cookies announced its commitment to switch to trans-fat-free products. In April 2004, Voortman’s became the first major cookie company to drop trans fat from its list of ingredients. This strategic move came a little over half a year after the first negative trans fat reports appeared.
According to Adrian Voortman, vice-president and son of founder and president Harry Voortman, the company has gotten a lot of support for eliminating trans fat from its products, particularly from doctors and mothers concerned about their children’s health. Adrian has six kids of his own, and he “absolutely” feels better about his family eating Voortman cookies. Plus, “They taste better now.”
Many other cookie manufacturers’ sales are down because of the low-carb trend. Since going trans fat free, though, Voortman’s sales have increased, despite an almost 10-per-cent price increase as a result of using a non-hydrogenated blend of canola, soybean, sunflower, and palm oils in lieu of partially hydrogenated oil. “I have a feeling that a lot of companies were already thinking about [eliminating trans fat from their products],” says Favaro, “and that the pieces and the articles in the Globe may have pushed them to realize that maybe it would be a really positive marketing tool to actually get rid of them.”
Manuel Arango, the manager of government relations at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, agrees. “The food industry is always reacting to market pressure,” he says, “and this is no different.” Arango is pleased that the sharp media coverage is causing the food industry to rethink trans fat, but he wishes that the media had done a better job at explaining why trans fat is dangerous.
Picard also has mixed feelings. “People can lose sight of the big picture,” he says. “It’s great that they are taking trans fats out of foods – unless of course they replace it with something as bad or worse.” He recalls the media frenzy over low-fat foods – where the fat usually had been replaced with sugar, which meant the new version was no healthier than the original.
Stephen Cunnane, a former University of Toronto professor of nutritional science, also dislikes too much attention being focused on one aspect of food. Although in favour of eliminating trans fat from diets, he doesn’t anticipate gaining much advantage in the long run. “We’ve oversimplified the relationship between trans fatty acids and heart disease,” he says, believing that good nutrition and good health is more of a lifestyle issue. “There’s no single component.”
The media, which solicit information from people like Cunnane, “sometimes oversimplify the relationship between a dietary component and a disease risk,” he says. When interviewed, he tries to put the issues in perspective. If what he has to say doesn’t make the story, he doesn’t mind. “But most of us have egos,” he continues, “and most of us want to see our names in print, so most of us want to help you make your story sell.”
While the story sold to consumers did emphasize fear over fact, the end results were positive. Large numbers of Canadians now know what trans fats are, and more companies are cutting back or eliminating trans fat from their products.
In fact, it might be argued that this is one of those rare stories that ends with everyone looking good – the government for enacting the new law, the food manufacturers for responding to consumer pressure, and the media for bringing an underexposed danger to light.