New FDA label requirements last year forced trans fats out of the closet and onto the nutrition panel for the world to see. Now one year later, with New York banning trans fats citywide and more and more press about the health risks, it seems trans fats have become public enemy number one, an evil villain out to kill everyone via french fries and doughnuts.
In his New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof compares the selling of trans fat-laden Girl Scout cookies to "death at the hands of Al Qaeda." In another interview, Dr. Patrick McBride, director of preventive cardiology at University of Wisconsin, says, "People say that you shouldn't regulate what people eat, but this is comparable to taking the lead out of paint."
This may seem a bit harsh for a product that in the late 1980s was thought of as a healthier alternative to saturated fats being used by processors at the time. But trans fats, the byproduct of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), have gotten a bad name for good reason. Research reveals they are the only known food to both raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol at the same time.
Top nutritionists at Harvard University have stated: "By our most conservative estimate, replacement of partially hydrogenated oils in the U.S. diet with natural nonhydrogenated vegetable oils would prevent approximately 30,000 premature coronary deaths per year, and epidemiologic evidence suggests this number is closer to 100,000 premature deaths annually."
With those kind of claims, it's no wonder everyone is going trans fat-free. Following New York's lead, many other cities have already proposed or are in the process of creating legislation to ban trans fats -- including Westchester County, N.Y., and Chicago. Actually, Tiburon, Calif., was America's first trans fat-free city, according to www.bantransfats.com, an activist group that has led the charge for ridding the U.S. of trans fats.
Entire grocery chains such as natural foods giant Wild Oats, as well as conventional grocery chains in Europe, won't even let products with trans fats in their doors. Fast food operations, notorious for their use of trans fats, are making the conversion. Universal Studios theme park just announced it will make the change.
There are even entire countries going trans fat free. Denmark has passed this legislation, and Canada is well on its way. This means processors who don't jump aboard the trans-free train may soon have no way of making it past the Canadian border. Even more, if this legislation passes in our neighboring country, then it may not be long before the U.S. drafts a similar ban.
Trans-free and proud
In sharp contrast to the vilification of trans fats is the celebration of "trans-free." The words are displayed proudly in bold colors on packages throughout stores. Products that didn't even have trans fats to begin with are declaring in big bold letters they are "trans fat-free."
Perhaps because it's based in Canada, which took earlier actions against trans fats, Voortman Cookies and its officials have been vocal proponents of removing trans fats from all foods. "Zero trans fats!" is proclaimed on all its cookie packages.
Voortman Cookies Ltd., Burlington, Ontario, was one of the first processors to eliminate trans fats, doing so back in April of 2004. Its officials have been very vocal about the need for and the ability of other processors to do likewise.
Also a leader in the movement was Campbell Soup Co. division Pepperidge Farm, whose Goldfish were the first crackers to swim past the trans-free finish line in 2004 by replacing partially hydrogenized soybean oil with sunflower and canola oil.
"We did extensive testing with children and adults and all the feedback was very positive," says Geri Allen, manager of brand and corporate communications for Pepperidge Farms (www.pepperidgefarm.com), Norwalk, Conn. "With the new formulation, sales have been doing very well with steady growth every year." This past December, Pepperidge Farm announced it successfully converted its complete cookie line, as well.
Some had to work harder than others to come up with a trans fat alternative, but the results have been worth it. Kraft reportedly spent two years, including over 30,000 man hours and 125 plant trials, before coming up with a palm oil-based creme that matches the flavor and texture of the original Oreo cookie.
Kraft seems to have hit it on the nose. In the "Tasters Choice" column in the San Francisco Chronicle, the new trans-free Oreo got the highest rating in a blind taste test of five sandwich cookie samples. "Perfect balance of toasted cocoa and filling sweetness. Crunchy, but not too crisp," said one tester. "Chocolate flavor is strong, and the filling has a good balance," said another. All of the participating tasters agreed they would buy these cookies.
Fine-tuning the fats
Although it has been done by many, replacing trans fats was and still isn't an easy process. "The industry became very dependant on the technology of partially hydrogenated oil. It was the workhorse. It did what everyone needed," says Tom Tiffany, food oil applications manager at ADM (www.admworld.com), Decatur, Ill.
What once was one simple, cost-effective process that performed well in practically all areas of processing, has become much more complex, incorporating a multitude of products and techniques. Within this spectrum of solutions are varying levels of functionality contributing things like texture, flavor and shelf life as well as health profiles, availability and costs.
While many processors are happy with their trans fat alternatives, the rush to make the January 2006 deadline means many companies are still tweaking things. Some are looking at ways to make a more health-friendly label, and others are looking for ways to cut costs or extend shelf life. At the same time, oil manufacturers are working hard to continually improve upon their offerings and better understand how to most effectively meet the needs of the new trans fat-free world.
Palm Oil -- The functional favorite
Note to Plant Ops
It's important that manufacturing personnel be consulted when removing fats and oils from recipes or changing the oils used. Oils and fats act as lubricants in the process. When they are removed, added or even substituted in a formulation, there probably will be some change to the processing.
Adding higher levels of oil requires higher levels of energy (whether thermal or mechanical) to give the product similar characteristics as the same recipe produced without oil. Also, the amount of oil that is added or removed from the recipe can influence component wear inside the machine that is used to manufacture the product.
Doughnuts have often been thought of as one of the final frontiers in the conversion to the trans-free world. They need to set up quick when they come out of the fryer, and traditional non-PHO liquid frying oils leave them oily and soggy. Besides the disappointing texture and taste, this excess oil would also bleed into the packaging, making a mess of the cardboard used by most doughnut makers. On the other hand, if the doughnut sets up too quickly then the sugar coating won't stick to it.
Just this past year, one of the world largest palm oil suppliers, Loders Croklaan (www.croklaan.com) Channahon, Ill., solved this doughnut dilemma by fractioning and refractioning palm oil to come up with a consistency that wasn't too wet or waxy. "If you can do doughnuts, you can do anything," says Gerald McNeill, U.S. technical director.
It's this versatile functionality that has made palm oil one of the most popular replacements for PHOs. Palmitic acid, found in palm oil, forms very small, stable crystals, which create a smooth texture and can trap air -- an essential function for creamy fillings, fluffy cakes and flaky pastries. It's also naturally high in antioxidants, which translates into longer shelf life. In addition, palm oil is similar in price and availability to the old standard, partially hydrogenated soybean oil. This combination of factors makes it a popular replacement for PHOs.
While its functionality is celebrated, palm oil's high level of saturated fats, about 50 percent, has raised questions. Ironically, PHOs started being used heavily in the 1980s to replace saturated fats such as palm oil, and now palm oil has made a comeback and is being used to replace for PHOs. One of the biggest concerns in the whole trans fat debate is that processors are just swapping out one bad fat for another.
Nevertheless, current research appears to conclude that of the two evils, trans fats are worse for the heart than saturated fats. In addition, saturated fats from plant sources don't have the same negative effects as sat fats from animal sources. And palm oil producers point to studies that show the oil's unique blend of fats actually may be good for the heart.
Even so, many processors are looking for ways to make their products more label-friendly, and reducing the saturated fat, or at least not increasing it, is important. In answer to this, Loders Croklaan recently developed Sans Tran RS 39, a blend of non-hydrogenized palm oil and canola oil with 30 percent less saturated fat than typical trans-free shortenings.
The perfect blend?
Blending is another popular trend in trans removal that can lower saturates and improve functionality. For instance, although fully hydrogenated soybean oil is 100 percent saturated fats, blending it with a heart-healthy oil such as canola can reduce the saturates to as low as 35 percent. Blends also can be mixed for more flavor or better functionality.
Another option is to use small amounts of partially hydrogenated oil in these blends. ADM and other oil suppliers are still looking at ways to optimize processing parameters of partial hydrogenation while minimizing trans fats. "Its all about the amount of trans fat per serving," says Tiffany of ADM. "If you can get it down low enough, then you still have some of that functionality and can label it as zero grams trans fat per serving."
However it's important to note that partially hydrogenated oil still needs to be listed on the product's ingredient statement, and many of today's health-conscious consumers will avoid it. Processors must weigh the pros and cons and decide what's best on a product-by-product basis.
"Our products have less than .5 percent trans fat, but with all the controversy surrounding trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils, we are looking at ways to completely remove partially hydrogenated oils from our products," says Phil Bernas, vice president of production and technology for potato chip maker Herr Foods Inc. (www.herrs.com), Nottingham, Pa.
This process takes the functionality of blends to an even higher level by switching fatty acid chains through either chemical or enzyme catalysis. "Through this we can create lower melting points similar to that of PHOs," Tiffany says of ADM's enzyme interesterified product, NovaLipid.
This is what Pepperidge Farm used to replace the PHOs in its buttery cookies. It has also worked well for baked goods, buttercream icing shortenings and pastries. Also, the saturated fats in interesterified soybean oil are predominantly stearic acid, shown to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels.
When soybean oil is used as the liquid portion of the blend, the levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are increased compared to palm oil or PHOs used for similar applications. In addition, ADM secured permission from the FDA to offer more consumer-friendly label of "interesterified soybean oil" versus "hydrogenized soybean oil."
At the seed level
One of the biggest trends is to enhance oils through breeding to have more user-friendly traits. Foremost among the desirable traits is lower levels of linolenic acid, which hastens rancidity, and higher levels of oleic acid, which apparently lowers cholesterol.
Yum Brands Inc., the company that owns 5,500 KFC restaurants across the country, recently announced a switch to Monsanto's Vistive brand low-linolenic soybean oil. Kellogg Co. also uses a variety processed from Vistive and Bunge/Pioneer's Treus low-linolenic soybean oils. Popular East Coast restaurant chain Legal Seafood has opted for Cargill's Clear Valley high-oleic canola oil. NuSun, a high-oleic sunflower, is being used in many Frito-Lay products.
The key in both trait-enhanced oils is to offer low levels of unstable polyunsaturated fats, thus eliminating the need to partially hydrogenate. Polyunsaturated fats don't hold up well through the thermal and oxidative degradation of processing and can become rancid, thus having negative effects on the flavor and frying capabilities.
Most low-linolenic versions can cut levels of polyunsaturated fats by 50 percent. Asoyia (www.asoyia.com), Winfield, Iowa, has ultralow-linolenic soybeans that can reduce linolenic levels down to 1 percent. These oils also offer lower saturated fat levels compared to other popular replacements, and high-oleic oils offer the added benefit of increased levels of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
Since these products begin at the seed level, it has taken some time to build up supply. However, John Beecher CEO of Qualisoy (www.qualisoy.com), a soybean marketing group, estimated 400 million lbs. of low-linolenic oil was available after the 2006 harvest and more than 1 billion lbs. of the oil should be available to the market in 2007.
Another concern for those seeking to make products for the natural or organic sectors are genetically modified organisms. In response to this, Cargill has created a non-GMO version of its Clear Valley high-oleic canola and sunflower oils. In addition, the company adds natural antioxidants such as rosemary and ascorbic acid to increase stability rather than synthetics such as BHA, HT and PBHQ. Asoyia ultra low-linolenic oil also is non-GMO.
An option that is both naturally stable and low in saturated fat is Nexsoy by Nexcel Natural Ingredients (www.nexcelfoods.com) Springfield, Ill. Using an expeller-extruder extraction method, Nexcel is able to create a soy product that has high levels of antioxidants and thus better stability.
Nexcel uses this process to produce non-GMO and organic oils primarily, however the process can be used on any bean including the "Roundup Ready" genetically modified soybean. "This is a good option for who need high availability but are looking for a naturally processed oil without chemical solvents and refining caustics used in typical soybean oil processing," says Rob Kirby, president.
Rice bran oil, another natural alternative, works especially well for frying because of its high smoke point and its low-linolenic, high-oleic ratio. "Rice bran is one of the healthiest replacements for trans fats, even more so than olive oil," says Kirk Scarborough, president of California Rice Oil Co. (www.californiariceoil.com), Navato, Calif. "It has the closest profile to what the American Heart Assn. recommends for a healthy heart. It also has more antioxidants -- olive oil has around 50 ppm, while rice bran has 2,500 ppm."
Talk to your oil suppliers
One of the most important things to keep in mind when going trans free is that removing trans fats is not just about swapping out one product for another. "There really is not a drop-in replacement. Rather than looking at just one ingredient, it's important to look at the system as a whole," says Bob Wainwright, technical director for Cargill's dressings, sauces and oils. "To get better functionality from a trans fat replacement you many need to tweak processes, formulations, order of ingredients, baker oven profiles or other variables."
Cargill works with its flour and ingredient partners to troubleshoot an issue. "Bringing other experts in can help you look at things from a different perspective. A lipid expert and a flour expert will see different solutions," he says. "For example, sometimes making a fat work better can come down to properly hydrating the dough, or other dough attributes."
Depending on what properties you want, oil manufacturers can help you achieve these. You want a higher melting point? They may suggest adding saturates. You want a longer shelf life? They may suggest adding antioxidants or using a low-linolenic option.
Something like shelf life can also come down to proper fryer management, including how often fryers are cleaned and oil filtration practices. Storage is also key, says Wainwright. Maintaining a bulk nitrogen atmosphere over the tank and low storage temperatures, as well as avoiding contact with pro-oxidants such as iron and copper, can extend shelf life significantly.