U.S. popcorn makers could face long, expensive road to lose trans fats

Reuters

By Curtis Skinner

NEW YORK, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Microwave popcorn makers couldface a long and difficult task ridding their snacks of transfats, if a U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposal to ban theadditives goes into effect. Just ask Orville Redenbacher.

Redenbacher's, a division of ConAgra Foods Inc,spent six years changing its leading line of popcorn, companyscientists said on Friday, a day after the FDA made itsproposal, which the government said would save 7,000 lives ayear.

The Popcorn Board, an industry trade group, said Americans munch 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn a year, and more thantwo-thirds of that is eaten in the home. $985.7 million worth ofunpopped kernels were sold in 2010, down 2.2 percent from fiveyears earlier. Popcorn also is the source of a substantialamount of the trans fats consumed by Americans.

Diamond Foods Inc - owner of Pop Secret - andAmerican Pop Corn Company - owner of Jolly Time - still use thesuspect fat in some products. Diamond Foods fell 4.6 percentfrom its open on the news Thursday, but pared losses beforeFriday's close. American Pop Corn Company is not publiclytraded.

Redenbacher's ditched the fats in all of their productsstarting in 2006, because of the health concerns.

Initial research and development of switching to a trans fatfree oil was four years. It took two years more to change theentire product line.

"We've mastered it, and I'm not going to tell you how we didit," laughed Pamela Newell, a senior director of productdevelopment at ConAgra. It took "a lot of money," she added,since many replacement oil blends limited or reduced the flavorof the popcorn.

Partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of the fatsin foods, have long been prized by microwavable popcorncompanies for their high melting point. The fat keeps oil soliduntil the package is heated, so unpopped bags don't ooze.

It also provides a taste and texture in the mouth whichisn't easy to replicate, popcorn makers say. But when consumed,trans fats increase bad cholesterol, a leading cause coronaryartery disease.

Since 2005, trans fat usage has fallen precipitously - theGrocery Manufacturers Association said manufacturers havevoluntarily lowered the amounts of trans fats in their foodproducts by more than 73 percent. But further reduction couldprevent 20,000 heart attacks as well as the 7,000 deaths fromheart disease a year, the FDA said.

Sales from ConAgra's consumer food segments rose 8 percentin fiscal 2013, due in part to Redenbacher's, according to thecompany's most recent annual report.

Diamond Foods' Pop Secret still produces a half-dozenproducts - including the Movie Theatre Butter and Homestylevarieties - that carry between 4.5 and 5 grams of the harmfulfat per serving.

The brand, which was purchased from General Mills in 2008,has been central to the company's 3.3 percent growth in its coresnack sales segment, said Diamond CEO Brian Driscoll during themost recent quarterly conference call.

Diamond Foods said it was reviewing the FDA plan anddeclined to make executives available for interview on Friday.

American Pop Corn Company, which owns the Jolly Time brand also has trans fats in some of its products.

The company works closely with Boulder Brands Inc's Smart Balance, an early developer of trans fat-free foodproducts, including microwavable popcorn.

Smart Balance executive vice president, John Becker, saidthat he hadn't talked with the American Pop Corn Company aboutthe FDA's proposal, and American could not be reached forcomment on Friday.

The ban would follow more limited restrictions across thecountry. New York City banned the use of trans fats inrestaurants, including their use for deep-frying foods, and manyrestaurants and fast food chains, including McDonald's Corp, have eliminated their use.

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