Trans fats give way to older, but not necessarily healthier, solutions

Since Canada’s ban on artificial trans fats came into effect in September, businesses and manufacturers have been looking for healthier options to make their products. But with few new alternatives, many are returning to old standbys that may be no better for our health or for the environment.

Artificial trans fats are unhealthy substances that are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it solid, such as to create margarine or shortening. Food makers originally turned to these partially hydrogenated vegetable oils because they prolong product shelf life and enhance flavour in deep-fried foods like fries and doughnuts and in baked goods like cookies and pies.

But the World Health Organization estimates that trans fat consumption leads to more than 500,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease every year, and last year called on all nations to rid foods of artificial trans fats by 2023.

That’s left business owners like Kostas Katsamakis scrambling to find a replacement for trans fat. He and his siblings run Select Bakery in east-end Toronto. When trans fats got cut, Katsamakis found the reformulations of the margarines and shortenings he was getting from his suppliers were damaging the quality of his cakes, cookies and pastries.

“All our recipes stopped working,” he said. “Our cake mixes, our cookie mixes, they would just stay flat, our icings would just stay flat. We weren’t getting the volume that we were getting previously.”

Katsamakis eventually returned to using butter, which provided the desired taste and texture to his products. But butter is a saturated fat that has been linked to heart disease.  

Problematic palm oil

Large food manufacturers have been phasing out artificial trans fats from their products for years. Customers are less likely to find it listed amongst the ingredients on packaging these days. But what they will find in its place is something perhaps more controversial.

“If you try to keep your product cost low and you need something that has the food chemistry of trans fats, you could bring palm oil in to replace it with,” says University of Toronto nutrition sciences professor Richard Bazinet

Palm oil, which has become ubiquitous, is high in saturated fat. It’s also ecologically problematic. It’s been linked to large-scale deforestation as huge swaths of the tropics and peat lands in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have been cleared to create oil palm plantations. That has displaced Indigenous peoples and contributed to the decline of orangutans as a result of the destruction of their habitat.

U of T nutrition Prof. Richard Bazinet on why trans fats in milk are considered healthy 0:32

Bazinet understands that palm oil is cheap and does the trick of replacing a trans fat with another fat. The bigger question he has is why manufacturers are still obsessing over junk food, which is inherently bad for health.

“We’re making our junk food a little bit less worse — not necessarily a good thing.”

Still, the idea of creating a healthier, tastier and easily produced replacement to trans fat remains the goal for many food chemists. Prof. Alejandro Marangoni and his team at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, have been working on some products he believes are promising.

One of them uses just oil, water and a natural emulsifier — three components that can be structured into a fat. 

Palm oil production has been linked to deforestation of orangutan habitat. (Marc Ancrenaz/Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project)

“This can be used to solidify any oil. It can be a locally grown oil, it can be a non-GMO [genetically modified organism] oil, it can be made in a large facility or a small facility,” he said. “It contains no solid hydrogenated or trans fat. This is very easy to make.”

Marangoni says his work has attracted the attention of a candy bar maker in Europe. But the food industry is cautious, and any new invention, like Marangoni’s proprietary technology, can be a tough sell.

One reason, Katsamakis says, is the uncertainty.

“So what’s OK now is not going to be OK tomorrow,” the bakery owner said. “This is the biggest issue that we’re finding — that we don’t know what’s going on exactly.”