Two years past the trans fat disclosure ruling, the issue continues to shape the industry and will for years to come. Some companies are way ahead of the curve, but others still are scrambling to catch up to the new reality.
Smart Balance Inc. (www.smartbalance.com), Paramus, N.J., is an example of the former. “Smart Balance spreads use a patented, natural blend of palm, soy and canola oils,” says CEO Steve Hughes. “It has zero trans fat and we don’t use hydrogenated or interesterified fats in our process.”
Once, fat was simply the enemy of dieters. Now it’s recognized as a sophisticated food ingredient, with both health and functional qualities that can make or break a product. “The edible oil industry is doing a good job developing second- and third-generation low-trans alternatives meeting the oxidative and functional challenges faced by food manufacturers,” says Tom Tiffany, senior technical sales manager for ADM Food Oils Div. (www.admworld.com), Decatur, Ill.
“Even though oxidative stability and functionality may be lacking in certain low trans alternatives, improvements in food packaging, oil handling and processing techniques are being used to make up for some of these shortcomings,” he adds.
Note to Marketing
Products made with the new, trans fat-replacing oils, oil blends and shortenings or fibers and gums often can enable the inclusion of healthy fats and reduction of saturated fats. This can open the door to labeling, branding or claims as a healthier product. However, it is imperative all legal requirements and parameters are met for such labeling or claims, including appropriate phrasing and required substantiation.
Trans fats, or more properly, trans fatty acids, occur naturally in most meats and dairy products where their presence is considered beneficial. In fact, vaccenic acid, an endogenous trans fatty acid found in ruminants, is naturally converted to conjugated linoleic acid, which has been associated with anticarcinogenic properties in animal research.
Conjugated linoleic acids are a family of trans-fatty acid isomers not counted as trans fats for the purpose of nutrition labeling in the U.S. These naturally occurring trans fats aren’t the problem; the ones produced by adding hydrogen to liquid oils are.
The original idea was simple: Turn less expensive vegetable oils into saturated-like fats and you get the best of all worlds. Hydrogenation reduces the tendency of vegetable oils to oxidize, neutralizes off flavors and increases the shelf life of baked and fried foods. Hydrogenated oils match the desirable baking properties of naturally occurring saturated fats, and at lower cost.
The value of hydrogenation didn’t come into question until well after research linked saturated fatty acids with cardiovascular disease via increased low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the particles in blood that carry fat and cholesterol to the tissues. This earned LDL the oversimplified label “bad cholesterol.” In fact, hydrogenated oils received the endorsement by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 1984. After all, they were derived from unsaturated fats, and it was saturated fats that were the problem.
Further research indicated that the byproduct of hydrogenation, trans fatty acids (fatty acids rearranged into the trans configuration), not only raised LDLs, but also lowered high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), the particles that carried cholesterol back to the liver for conversion to bile acids and eventual disposal - the so-called “good cholesterol.” Trans fats became the ultimate “bad fat.” Health-conscious consumers caught on quickly, and manufacturers were on the hunt for new oils.
Drilling for new oil
With hydrogenated soy oil as the industry standard, the first reaction was to rethink, revisit – and in some cases reinvent – food oil. Monounsaturated fats, rich in omega-9 fatty acids, have built a reputation as “healthy fats” ever since olive oil was shown to lower LDL while raising HDL. This led to the search for sources of monounsaturates without the olive taste and cost for processing.
There have been several contenders.
In the mid 1990s, Dow AgroSciences LLC (www.dowagro.com), Indianapolis, developed Nexera seeds, a line of canola seed naturally bred for high oil stability without the need for hydrogenation. Oils made from Nexera canola and sunflower seeds have a unique combination of high oleic (more than 70 percent) and low linolenic (less than 3 percent) fatty acids (linolenic acid an is omega-3 fatty acid highly susceptible to oxidation). This unique and patented fatty acid profile gives the oils desirable taste, health and performance attributes.
In 1793, Eli Whitney solved one problem and created another. By inventing the cotton gin, he increased the production of cotton and left growers with a surplus of cottonseed. One business’ surplus is another’s gold. Getting the golden oil stored in cottonseed necessitated innovations in seed crushing technology and created the oilseed industry.
Cottonseed’s natural fatty acid profile includes 26 percent saturated fatty acids and virtually no linolenic acid, a profile that, according to the National Cottonseed Products Assn. (www.cottonseed.com), Cordova, Tenn., stabilizes the oil, making hydrogenation unnecessary.
Many processors prefer the frying and baking properties of cottonseed oil, especially as it has neutral flavor characteristics. Mike Rice, chairman, CEO and third-generation owner of Utz Quality Foods Inc. (www.utzsnacks.com), Hanover, Pa., believes cottonseed oil is the perfect match for his company’s potato chips. “It’s the gold standard in our industry. Our original chip formula - fresh whole potatoes, sliced and cooked in 100 percent pure, non-hydrogenated cottonseed oil - will never change,” says Rice.