As the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) introduces legislation compelling all food manufacturers to declare the trans fatty acid content of their products, it has become clear that US consumers are already reducing consumption of high trans fatty acid oils and spreads in favour of products with lower or no TFA content, writes Elena Ruiu of Euromonitor International.

Consumers in the US are changing their buying habits in the oils and spreads market in response to growing concern about the negative health impact of trans fatty acids (TFAs), and further change is anticipated following the recent introduction of legislation aimed at reducing TFA consumption.

Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) brought in new regulations requiring food producers to disclose levels of trans fatty acids (TFAs) on the nutrition facts panel of all packaged foods. The FDA hopes that merely disclosing the amount of TFAs on food labels will save between 2,000 and 5,600 lives per year, as US consumers will reduce or even curtail consumption of products containing TFAs.

In fact, the new labelling regulations were announced back in 2003 which helped raise awareness among consumers long before the new regulation came into force. According to Euromonitor International, sales of margarine and spreadable oils and fats fell as a result, with many consumers switching from margarine to other spreads, including butter.

As consumers bought more butter, causing butterfat prices to surge, an increasing number of margarine manufacturers successfully produced trans fat-free (TFA-free) products, resulting in some consumers switching back to margarine. Interestingly, while retail volume sales of margarine have continued to decline, value sales have increased as consumers are paying more for higher-priced TFA-free variants. In 2006, these new higher priced reformulations are likely to lead to further margarine sales growth, at the expense of both higher trans fat margarines and butter.

Meanwhile, the olive oil category has also benefited from concern over TFAs, which evidence suggests raise LDL cholesterol, lower HDL cholesterol, causing clogged arteries and increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Olive oil continued its impressive growth in 2005, with both of the leading brands, Salov North America’s Filippo Berio and Unilever’s Bertolli, focusing their advertising campaigns on the health benefits associated with consuming olive oil as part of a Mediterranean diet. Growth has also been fuelled by the introduction of premium-priced product variants and new flavours.

Salov North America also distributes leaflets in doctor surgeries describing the health benefits of consuming olive oil. Unilever invested around US$3m in advertising in 2004, linking Bertolli to the healthy Mediterranean way of life, helping it to maintain its number one brand position.

However, according to Euromonitor International’s estimates, private label is benefiting the most from the increasing popularity of olive oil. With different choices, such as pure, semi-fine, filtered or unfiltered, in addition to green, peppery, sweet or fruity variations from Italy, Greece, Spain, and California, brands such as Trader Joe’s drove sales of private label olive oil in 2004.

In spite of the recent surge in popularity, olive oil is not a daily-use product for the majority of US consumers as it is a premium-priced option, underlined by the fact that its value share of the oil market is twice that of its volume share. US consumers buy olive oil for special applications such as the preparation of ethnic meals.

Vegetable and seed oil manufacturers have also looked to capitalise on concerns over TFA levels in margarine and promote the purported health benefits offered by vegetable and seed oils. For example, flaxseed oil is claimed to help prevent strokes, heart attacks and high cholesterol, and provide benefits for people suffering from arthritis, angina, multiple sclerosis, asthma and allergies. Sunflower seed oil, which in 2005 had a modest share of the vegetable and seed oil category, contains many vitamins and minerals.

Recent claims also suggest that rice oils can lower cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease. The California Rice Oil Company asserts that it is, “the healthiest of all oils for human consumption”. Another recent claim suggests that vegetable oils, which account for around half of the vegetable and seed oil category in volume terms, have proven effective in treating chronic liver disease. Meanwhile, canola oil saw its volume share of vegetable and seed oil increase to almost 20% in 2005, on the back of claims that it is a heart-healthy product.

According to Euromonitor International estimates for 2005, these factors contributed to a slight current value increase in sales of vegetable and seed oil, as consumers traded up to more expensive, healthier variants. In volume terms, the vegetable and seed oil sector actually declined in 2005, although that can be attributed in part to the declining popularity of the Atkins and South Beach low-carb diets which had buoyed sales of vegetable oils in 2003 and 2004.