Unilever spreads to lose trans fats; use in food off 70%

— -- Unilever, which sells more tubs of soft margarine spread than anyone, will unveil Monday plans to remove all partially hydrogenated oils — artificial trans fats — from its soft-spread brands, including I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and Shedd's Spread Country Crock.

The change, to begin next month and be done by the second quarter of 2010, signals how serious the marketing and technology battle about trans fats in foods has become. Shoppers have increasingly demanded that foods they buy — from baked goods to snacks to margarine — no longer carry artery-clogging trans fats that can lead to heart disease.

"I call this the death knell for trans fats," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University.

The elimination of trans fats from the U.S. diet "should be written up as a business school case and studied," says Michael Jacobson, director of advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has pushed for it. Trans fats have been reduced more than 70% in three years, he says.

Unilever, which makes half the spreads sold in the U.S., already can claim "zero grams" of trans fat in its spreads, which also include Brummel & Brown and Imperial.

Food and Drug Administration rules let foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving be labeled "0 grams of trans fat."

But consumer demand and pointed marketing by Smart Balance, Unilever's closest rival in soft spreads, nudged Unilever to go lower. It will no longer mix in even tiny amounts, which added texture and shelf life. The new label, for the first time, will boast: No hydrogenated oils.

Unilever will replace the partially hydrogenated oils with a mixture of palm oil and interesterified fat (plant oil). All four of its spread brands will then have only 0.05 grams per serving of trans fat, the minute amount that occurs naturally in vegetable oils.

The change could kill a very effective ad campaign by Smart Balance that relentlessly needled Unilever's spreads, and others, for adding partially hydrogenated oil.

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