Consumers Worry About Flavour, Not Trans Fats in Snacks

November 07, 2011 - News Release

Despite warnings about the health risks of eating trans fats, consumers know little about them and are reluctant to give up snack foods containing them, according to a recently published study by researchers including a University of Guelph professor.

Co-authored by Prof. Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean, research and graduate studies, in the College of Management and Economics, the 2009 study was the first to examine perceptions of consumers in Regina, Sask., following increased government and media attention to the health risks of trans fats. The study is available online.

Trans fats are created by hydrogenating unsaturated fat such as vegetable oil to harden it, as in margarine. Health Canada warns that trans fats raise blood levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Trans fats also lower blood levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease.

“In 2005, the Canadian government implemented a policy of mandatory food labelling for trans fat,” Charlebois said. “However, four years later, people were not exactly mindful of the health risks of trans fat, such as its link to coronary heart disease.”

Among 211 people who completed a 21-item survey at three Regina grocery stores, 98 per cent had heard of trans fats and 96 per cent knew that trans fat is found in processed foods.

Although 91 per cent of the consumers identified trans fat as a concern, 44 per cent called it a “minor concern,” and none indicated that they looked for trans fat information on food package labels.

“The study showed that, unless people are asked to look specifically for trans fat, they don’t check for it, even when they read the nutrition facts label," said Charlebois. "Consumers notice if the words ‘no trans fats’ are placed big and bold on the front of snack packaging, but they tend to overlook the words ‘non-hydrogenated fat’ in the small print on the back.”

Even the claim of “contains 0 trans fats” means the food still contains trans fat, only in a very small quantity — less than 0.2 grams of trans fat per serving of a stated size, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. If a person eats more than a single serving, the amount of trans fat consumed adds up.

Charlebois said that, although tasty foods with pleasant “mouth feel” have been developed without trans fats, some manufacturers have been slow to react, and people who enjoy snacking are probably ingesting more trans fats than they realize.

Study respondents said their most popular snack was fruit, followed by popcorn and potato chips. Although 73 per cent of respondents said they had changed their diet so as to eat less trans fat, 63 per cent said they would not stop eating snack foods containing it.

Asked to choose between microwaveable popcorn products with and without trans fat, 84 per cent of respondents selected the trans fat-free option. When asked why, 37 per cent said the snack contained no trans fat; 40 per cent said they had read the product’s nutritional facts information.

Respondents aged 18 to 40 were significantly more likely than other age groups to choose the trans fat popcorn. Among their comments: “My daughter likes it”; “snack consumption is not often”; “pleasure in eating is more desirable than the health concern.”

“Despite improved awareness of the elevated risk of coronary heart disease associated with the consumption of trans fat, people don’t actively seek out information about it on food packaging," said Charlebois, "and when they get the munchies, young people are less likely to make their choice based on the amount of trans fat.”

The study shows that, when it comes to selecting a snack, flavour and force of habit may override a perceived health risk.

Sylvain Charlebois
Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies
College of Management and Economics
University of Guelph
519-824-4120, Ext. 56808

University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1