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The effort to get trans fat, the ''deadliest fat in the American diet,'' out of the food supply is getting a potential boost from the biotech industry.
Agricultural giant Monsanto is expected to announce at the American Dietetic Association conference in San Antonio today a three-phase soybean breeding project that it hopes will create a trans-fat-free product.
For the consumer, that means the possibility of a new generation of saturated- and trans-fat-free chips, cakes, cookies and fries full of heart-healthy oils at fast-food outlets and on grocery shelves.
The basis of the plan:
* Phase 1. This begins with Monsanto's Roundup-Ready soybeans, which are genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant. Using conventional breeding, that soybean has been bred to produce lower levels of linolenic acid, which means it will be shelf-stable without being hydrogenated.
Hydrogenation creates trans fat, or trans fatty acids, which raise ''bad cholesterol'' and decrease ''good cholesterol.'' It also may cause damage that leads to diabetes and strokes.
A low-linolenic soy oil would require less or no hydrogenation and could reduce or eliminate trans fat in many foods. The beans will be available to plant in two years.
* Phase 2. Monsanto then takes its low-linolenic-acid bean and, through conventional breeding, makes it higher in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, producing a soy oil similar to olive oil but with a milder taste. Seeds would be available in four to five years.
* Phase 3. The bean is tweaked to bring its saturated fat down to 1%. It would be stable without hydrogenation, high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and almost free of saturated fats. It would be almost trans-fat-free even if hydrogenated. Monsanto says it is eight years away from planting, including regulatory review.
Dow AgroSciences says it is working on a similar low-saturated-fat product, a canola oil, though it's not as far along. It already has both low-linolenic-acid canola and sunflower oils.
The efforts also might pave the way for bioengineered foods to finally come out of the closet. No longer would manufacturers hide the fact that their products are made with biotech ingredients because genetic tinkering makes some people nervous. In fact, consumers may clamor for them.
One buyer with a national supermarket chain said there's consumer ''uncertainty'' about bioengineered products, but the enormous trend toward ''everything diet'' might overcome that.
Some activists worry that this might just be another version of Golden rice, a bioengineered rice variety that contains higher levels of vitamin A and was heavily promoted by the biotech industry as something that would save children in the developing world from disease. Golden rice hasn't actually made it into farmers' fields because of technical, financial and patent problems, and it's unclear if it ever will, even though ads touting it have appeared for years.
''Why not just call (the soybean project) 'Golden soybeans'?'' asked Mike Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
But with laws going into effect in 2006 that will require labeling of trans fat, finding ways to lower or replace it is the Holy Grail of the food industry, says Kim Severson, author of The Trans Fat Solution: Cooking and Shopping to Eliminate the Deadliest Fat from Your Diet.
''It is the No. 1 thing on the minds of food manufacturers: How can they get a trans-fat-free oil they can put in fryers and cakes and cookies?''
Still, how much these oils might help eliminate trans fat is an open question, says Alice Lichtenstein of Tufts University in Boston. ''The point becomes how much hydrogenated and animal fat is it going to displace in the U.S. diet? Displacing a little may not have an effect. Displacing a lot that's relatively high in saturated fat might,'' she says.
But if it helped people eat healthier, even Jacobson, whose organization is sometimes called ''the Food Police,'' might approve.
''People are not avoiding McDonald's because the french fries are bad. If we can't persuade people to stop eating them, let's make them better,'' he says.
On the other hand, companies will have a hard time selling genetically modified foods as health foods, says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics. ''Surely the population of people who care about trans fat also care about (the dangers of genetically modified food). This looks like another desperate move by ag-biotech companies to find something useful to genetically engineer.''
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