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Aug. 6 2007 12:00 AM

Perhaps not since the days of Prohibition has there been a more nationalized movement to ban a food substance. Where the Prohibition movement failed to gain wide public support for the evils of alcohol consumption, today's new Public Health Enemy #1, trans fat, is widely accepted as "bad" for the health of society.


Trans fats, however, are not alone in being labeled as a "bad for you" ingredient. On the consumer hit list sugar, high fructose corn syrup and trans fats have been pushed to the forefront of "bad ingredient" lists by their public censorship from schools (soda) and trans fats from restaurants (e.g., New York City, Chicago and a growing list of cities across America).


In the process of censoring various products and ingredients, a host of consumer myths and beliefs about the effects of such ingredients on the human body have been forced into the average consumer's thinking, whether invited or not. While those consumers most active in the "core" of wellness lifestyles are already contemplating the effects and sources of trans fats, sugar and high fructose corn syrup, average Americans (those in the mid-level and periphery) have typically added concerns and anxieties about such ingredients to the other worries in their lives. This means that trans fats, while broadly understood as "bad fats" with hazy associations to clogged arteries, heart disease and obesity, are still being incorporated into the larger "food anxiety" constructs that plague the average citizen. At the same time, what we have found with regard to trans fats is that as a specific concern they are certainly on the collective consumer radar:



  • Awareness of trans fats today has increased from when we measured it three years ago: Whereas 83% of Americans had heard of "trans fats" in 2004, today a full 94% of Americans are familiar with the term.
  • Connections between "trans fats" and the term "unhealthy" have also increased in the population: Whereas 14% of the population thought "trans fats" were one of the healthy fats in 2004, only 7% say so today.



"Good" Fat, "Bad" Fat: Confusion at Close Range


While at high altitude consumers show awareness and concern for trans fats, at the granular level we still see consumers confused about the specifics of what makes up a "good" fat or a "bad" fat: In unaided commentary consumers will readily describe olive oil, nuts and canola oil as what they deem to be the top three "good" fats; while in reverse, top descriptions of "bad" fats include trans fats, saturated fats and butter. Interestingly, butter makes both the good and the bad fat list, and along with nuts and vegetable oil, we see that several commonly used ingredients still provide room for consternation in the minds of consumers as to which ingredients they should be "watching" when it comes to trans fat avoidance, diet behaviors and potential threats to their health.



Another interesting notion about trans fats among consumers that reflects the infancy of the topic in their minds is that they appear more concerned about trans fats in packaged foods than they do with meals when dining out: 72% of consumers currently agree with the statement: "Trans fats are a big problem in packaged foods" vs. 50% agreeing with the statement: "I'm more concerned about trans fats when eating away from home."


This noticeable, though slight, disparity between consumer concerns about trans fats in packaged food and restaurant settings is likely due to the relative newness of consumers being "taught" that restaurants products, such as fried foods, are a significant potential source of trans fats. While consumers will readily say they are avoiding trans fats by avoiding "anything fried" these new teachings can be compared to long-term consumer purchase and use of packaged goods and a historic cultural focus on discerning "fat" content in packaged goods ingredient lists. The availability of ingredient lists themselves also plays a likely role in influencing current distinctions between concerns for trans fats in packaged goods compared to restaurant products since packaged goods are required to carry an ingredient panel and only a handful of restaurants currently offer easily accessible nutritional information for their meals. It is possible that as restaurant operators become more transparent about their operations and ingredients that consumer awareness and concern for high sugar, salt and fat/trans fat ingredients will increase.


Putting Trans Fats in Context


Consumer awareness and concern about trans fats is greater today than it was three years ago. While consumers will readily list what they believe are good and bad fats, Americans are still developing strategies and internal rankings of importance for how to seek out or avoid bad fats. The reality is that for many Americans concern for trans fats in foods is just one of many health worries - along with obesity and heart disease - with which to cope on a daily or routine basis. While public programs seek to banish trans fats from various products and sources, the diversity of causes for obesity, both imagined and real, are much more complex than any one ingredient source.


We are on the doorstep of a new era in how food products are made, marketed and sold, pushed there by consumers in their quest for higher quality food products and experiences so they can realize their overarching wellness goal to live the "good life." When looking through this lens, we can see there is no room for trans fat to exist in the marketplace of the near or distant future.


 

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