How to Replace Trans Fats

A year after the labeling deadline, we look at what processors used to replace trans fats, including canola and sunflower oils and trait-enhanced soybeans.

By Kathryn Trim, Contributing Editor

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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 ( 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. (, 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.

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