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Unilever cuts trans fats from soft spreads

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 28-Jul-2009

Unilever has announced that it will cut the trans fats from its soft spreads, while keeping levels of saturated fat below two grams per serving – even though it could already claim ‘zero trans fats’ on labels.

Evidence has mounted over the past decade showing that trans fats – such as the partially hydrogenated oil in Unilever’s spreads – clog arteries and cause heart disease. On the back of growing concern, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a regulation which came into effect in 2006 requiring manufacturers to list trans fatty acids on the nutrition panel of foods, providing further motivation for manufacturers to slice trans fats from their products.

But if a product contains less than 0.5g of trans fats per serving, it can still be classified as having zero grams under US law. This has led to criticism that consumers could easily surpass the two-gram daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association, particularly from Unilever’s rival spread manufacturer Smart Balance.

On the back of heightened consumer awareness, Unilever has said it will remove all hydrogenated oils from its I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, Brummel & Brown, Shedd’s Spread Country Crock and Imperial soft spreads by the second quarter of 2010.

Senior vice president and general manager of US foods at Unilever John LeBoutillier said: “As the category leader with a portfolio of leading brands enjoyed by families across the country, we’re proud to make a commitment that will have a positive impact on the health and wellness of millions of our loyal consumers…The ultimate goal is to further reduce trans fats in the American diet, while maintaining lower levels of saturated fat than butter and many other soft spreads on the market.”

Following Unilever’s announcement, shares in Smart Balance fell by as much as 13 percent, according to Dow Jones Newswires, as its trans-fat-free marketing advantage was hit by the news.

Trans fat in the form of partially hydrogenated oil is most common in baked and fried foods, in which it can count for up to 45 percent of total fat content. It is cheaper to produce than healthier oils like sunflower or olive oil, provides food manufacturers with greater processing stability and gives foods a longer shelf life. Therefore, margarines and commercially produced shortenings in the US have traditionally contained high levels of hydrogenated fats.

Trans fat bans that have been instigated in places like New York City, Philadelphia and the state of California refer to artificial trans fats, but there are also naturally occurring sources of trans fat. It makes up two to five percent of total fat content in dairy products and beef, for example.

The World Health Organization has recommended an upper limit of one percent of a person’s daily energy to come from trans fat.

Denmark was the first country to set an upper limit on trans fats as a percentage of total fat content in a food item – and set it at two percent in 2003.

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