First it was carbs. Now it's trans fats. Supermarket bakeries are eliminating the cholesterol-boosting villain one cookie at a time.
Just as carbohydrates are common in baked goods, so, too, are trans fats. They are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, a process known as hydrogenation. Food makers like hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils because they increase product shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing the fats. In recent years, however, trans fats have gotten a bad rap. Scientific evidence has shown consumption of trans fats raises levels of low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires food manufacturers to list trans fat content on a new line to be added to product Nutrition Facts panels by Jan. 1, 2006. The rule doesn't require new labels for products that don't require nutrition labels now, nor does it require manufacturers to eliminate trans fats entirely. Yet many companies are working toward that goal, and intend to use claims of zero trans fats for marketing their new products.
"We'd like to be able to say, 'Hey, look -- there are no trans fats here,"' said Paul Supplee, director of bakery operations for Lund Food Holdings, which operates 20 Lunds and Byerly's stores and three Rick's Market stores in the Twin Cities. "I'm hoping to be trans fat-free by the deadline."
In many cases, the onus will fall largely on the manufacturers that supply supermarket bakeries with everything from cakes to cookies and croissants. Not facing an imminent deadline yet, retailers said they are beginning to work with their suppliers, and expect to see a barrage of new products marketed as being free of trans fats in the coming months.
"We're working with manufacturers on their efforts to reformulate a number of [their] items that we buy in an effort to lower the trans fats," said Joe Ramirez, spokesman for the Penn Traffic chain of 107 supermarkets. "Obviously, this is something of a challenge for them since many of [the products] are made with solid shortening."
Officials at Giant Eagle supermarkets are also taking a look at the requirements.
"We continue to monitor the labeling issue to determine all the specific requirements, and we are in the process of reviewing each bakery category individually," said a spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based chain of more than 200 stores.
McDonald's and other major players in food service and food manufacturing have found that removing trans fats in french fries and other fattening items cannot be accomplished overnight. Likewise, bakers are learning, through trial and error, that there's nothing simple about fat replacement.
The bakeries at Lunds and Byerly's carry many items made at the company's central bakery. Taking one category at a time, bakery officials have been wrestling with reformulating products and developing new recipes using healthier fats.
"Whenever we have an opportunity to change from a hard fat to oil, we're doing that. But we don't want to use just any oil," Supplee said. "We use canola oil whenever we can. It's almost like olive oil. With some things, like white cake and chocolate cake, we're using some saturated fats in those. It's a trade-off. We think the public will prefer a small amount of saturated fat as opposed to any amount of trans fat."
A team of about 10 company officials meets once a week to review progress. One key person is Matt Berg, the company's product development manager, "the R&D guy," as Supplee called him. Berg arrives at the meetings carrying new products in various stages of development for everyone to sample, and decides who will do the research and develop new items.
"It's rarely finished the first time he brings it in," Supplee said, noting it can take four to six efforts before bakery crews come up with a finished product that meets the team's standards. "It's difficult. It's not just replacing five pounds of this with five pounds of that. When you're going to oils, it changes product characteristics totally."
Buns were a huge challenge. "They're a big part of our sales," Supplee said. The company spent six months reformulating recipes. Bakers replaced all the trans fats with oil in their hot dog and hamburger buns, silver dollar buns, biscuits and dinner rolls. Bakers also eliminated trans fats from cakes made in-house, including the popular Lady Baltimore, chocolate pudding and marble cakes. With both categories, bakers reformulated the items without adding to their cost, Supplee said.
"We use some vegetable gums with the oils to retain the moisture where trans fats were doing it before," Suplee said. "We've used starches and gums to help with retaining the shelf life."
Bakers now make pies and cinnamon rolls with butter. Store bakeries carry a total of 19 cookie varieties, so the cookie segment is the next big category to work on, along with doughnuts.
"We do some outsourcing of baked products," Supplee said. "We'll approach [suppliers] soon to see what their solution is. It won't fit in our bakeries at all if it has trans fats. If it has trans fats in it, I won't even look at it."
Reformulating baked goods remains a work in progress at Lunds and Byerly's. Thus far, the retailer has taken a low-key approach to communicating what's going on to the public. The company placed new labels on packages of buns touting the zero trans fat content, but that's about it -- for now.
"Probably by the end of 2005, we'll be able to tell the world the products here are trans fat-free," Supplee said. "It'll be a key item for marketing."