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With Its Stance On Trans Fats,
Tesco May Be Hip But Not Healthy

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 7, 2007

One of Tesco’s oft-repeated claims is that its private label products will be made without trans fat. This sounds like a good thing. The very word ”fat” strikes most people as a bad thing, and there have been studies indicating that trans fat — which is just what you get when you add hydrogen to vegetable oil — does raise the “bad” cholesterol while suppressing the “good” cholesterol.

Of course, this alone tells us nothing — whether getting rid of trans fat is a good thing depends entirely on two things:

What will trans fat be replaced with?

How will consumers react to trans-fat-free items?

A piece in the “Health Journal” column of The Wall Street Journal explains that health experts have concerns:

Food companies are scrambling to replace trans fat in everything from french fries to cookies, but health experts worry that what’s good for the nation’s heart might be bad for its waistline….

….what’s going in food instead of trans fat? Some food makers are going back to ingredients high in cholesterol-raising saturated fat, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil. In Kellogg’s Eggo blueberry waffles, for example, trans fats have been replaced with palm oil and palm kernel oil, while Oreos now contain “palm oil and/or canola oil.”

….Other products are achieving trans-fat-free status through interesterification, a process in which fatty acids are redistributed on a fat molecule to make liquid fats behave more like solid fats. Products made with interesterified fat include Promise Buttery Spread and Enova cooking oil. Unilever, the maker of Promise, conducted its own study 10 years ago that found no adverse effects from food made with interesterified fat, says Doug Balentine, Unilever’s director of nutrition sciences for the Americas.

But other nutrition experts say not enough is known about the safety of interesterified fat. There was little interest in researching the ingredient until the recent push for trans-fat alternatives. David Baer, a research physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, says his own research has studied only blended fats, and offers no insights on interesterified fats specifically. “We’re interested in trying to figure out the health effects,” he says. “The nutrition community is puzzled by what might be the most healthful alternative to trans fat.”

K.C. Hayes, director of the Foster Biomedical Research Lab at Brandeis University, says that while the ingredient is in relatively few products now, its use may grow before the health-care community fully understands its impact. Dr. Hayes, who conducted a small study funded by the palm-oil industry that did find negative health effects from interesterified fats, says, “The point is, we should know more before we go off trans fat and onto something else.”

…The biggest danger of the trans-fat swap-out could be that consumers will eat more junk food because they think it’s healthier. For one thing, zero doesn’t necessarily mean zero. Products can still have up to half a gram of trans fat and carry a “zero trans fat per serving” label. So if someone eats more than a serving of cookies, they could still be consuming a few grams of trans fat.

The irony here is that very few of these products contained trans fat in their original formulations. It wasn’t until the same groups that are agitating for its removal from products and pushed successfully for a federal labeling requirement previously pushed to eliminate saturated fats.

We also think the last point of the article — that people tend to eat more of things they are told are “healthy” is very telling — many a consumer is going to think trans- fat-free means fat-free or calorie-free and is likely to over indulge. Perhaps an extra inch on the waistline is worse that some trans fat?

Tesco is certainly showing itself to be hip. It will be many years before we know if it actually is healthy.

Tesco Teases With Video Of New Store

Here is a little one-minute video that Tesco released to get some buzz going among consumers before the launch of its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market concept. Difficult to say much definitively from a little clip, but these things stand out:

  • Products they choose to emphasize in the video, such as Gelato and Atlantic Salmon, seem decidedly upscale — too upscale for many of the locations.
  • The prepared foods offerings look very similar to what you see in the U.K. with similar packaging.
  • An awful lot of the produce looks covered in plastic — uncertain how this will go over. Not the typical presentation Americans are used to.
  • A lot of emphasis on how great they are — good neighbor — great place to work — no trans fat, etc. — Pundit’s Mom taught him you can break your arm patting yourself on the back. If they really are a great place to work, word will get around really fast — if not, all the signs in the world won’t help.
  • Biggest problem — store doesn’t look fresh. Too much stuff behind glass doors, too many grocery items, too much stuff in plastic wrap or trays. Décor lacks the visual cues that mean warmth and freshness to Americans — wood floors, cascading waterfall displays into bushel baskets. It comes across like an overgrow gas station mini-mart.

Here is the video:

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