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Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (PHO) is an ingredient with not a very glamorous name and even less glamorous side effects. PHOs are a source of industrially produced trans-fatty acids, with consumption associated with raised cholesterol and inflammation of the blood vessels, heart disease, in short. Since 2007, levels of trans-fatty acids have had to be labelled on food products, and, fearing consumer backlash, many manufacturers have reformulated, removing PHOs and replacing them with healthier but more expensive alternatives. Now, the FDA is going one step further. At the beginning of November 2013, it ruled that PHOs are to lose their status as an approved and safe ingredient, with the aim of preventing 7,000 deaths from heart disease a year. Good news for public health and a good opportunity for suppliers of trans-free ingredient alternatives.
But what does it mean for food manufacturers? Well, not a huge amount it seems. The Snack Food Association (SFA), which represents over 400 snack food companies, told Euromonitor International that the most recent survey of its members suggests that the FDA ruling will not have a “significant impact on most companies”. Indeed, many manufacturers have been working to “eliminate or reduce the use of PHOs from their products for many years”, the SFA said. And manufacturers’ efforts have been successful, not just in snacks but also in cooking oil, bakery and sauces. Euromonitor International data shows that current per capita consumption of hydrogenated vegetable oil from packaged food products in the US has fallen to less than 2g per day, down from 6g in 2007.
There is still some progress to be made though, the SFA acknowledged. Popcorn for example will have its work cut out, with three of the top five brands in the US all still using PHOs and consumption rising. Retail value sales of popcorn in the US grew by US$487 million between 2010 and 2013, equating to a volume increase of over 20,000 tonnes. There are still some snack companies – producers of chips/crisps in particular – that use PHOs for frying, and these will need to source different types of oil. Large brands, with an accordingly large research and development budget, will find this transition easier to manage than some of the smaller users of PHOs, and it is larger companies that can more readily absorb the cost of changing the label of their products accordingly. If there is any financial impact to be had, it is likely to be the smaller companies that feel the pinch.
But it is not just food manufacturers that will be affected – over two thirds of all vegetable and seed oil in the US is consumed through the foodservice channel. With long shelf life and stability at high temperatures, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are widely used by fast food chains for frying and the FDA may find that monitoring this usage is its biggest challenge. While many of the large chains such as McDonald’s have already made commitments to remove trans-fats from their products, there are nearly 100,000 independent fast food outlets across the US. Ensuring they have all stopped using PHOs is not going to be an easy task.