Awaiting the Next Generation of Fats and Oils

As suppliers and processors end their dash away from hydrogenated products, palm oil and fractions are the fats du jour.

By David Phillips, Technical Editor

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Oils and fats provide some essential flavors and functions in food processing, and those attributes are usually juxtaposed against cost concerns when a food processor selects one of these products for an application. During the past decade, however, a larger issue has come to the forefront.

"The most significant and substantial transition began six or eight years ago with the move away from trans fats," says Bob Wainwright, technical director for the oils and shortenings group at Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minn. "We have seen a lot of new-product activity driven by that. To a large extent that journey is getting closer and closer to the finish line. Now I hear more enthusiasm about what’s next."

And what is next? "People are talking about saturated fat a lot," he says.

Oils and fats are used in a variety of food processing segments, including bakery, snack and prepared foods. They enhance flavor, texture and structure development. Functionally, shortenings are critical for proper creaming in many cookie doughs and will impact the spread and tenderness of finished cookies. In biscuits and pie doughs, shortening imparts tenderness and flakiness. Shortenings and oils also are used as heat transfer mediums for frying applications.

Hydrogenated oils offered functionality and forgiveness at low cost. But when research indicated that trans-fatty acids, had a much more significant negative health impact than saturated fats, the use of oils and fats underwent a major shift.

The result in the short term has been a return to the use of so-called offshore or tropical oils, says John Jansen, senior vice president of regulation, quality and innovation with the oils division of Bunge Foods, St. Louis.

"Consumer acceptance is reshaping the industry as we move from trans-containing products to zero-trans per serving, and now to reduced saturated fat formulas," Jansen says. "It's estimated that 70 percent of all partial hydrogenation already has departed the market place, replaced in many cases by palm oils which are higher in saturates. Consumers are now interested in removing those additional saturates in shortening applications, and [there also is] more and more focusing on healthy salad oils high in mono- or polyunsaturates."

Those oils are great for some applications, but not for others. Therein lies the next challenge: to develop non-hydrogenated products that offer the functionality of traditional projects. Suppliers are turning to hard fractions of tropical fats. They offer higher functionality in smaller amounts and can be blended with things like canola oil so to produce a product with lower saturated fat content but full functionality.

Other innovations include trait-specific strains of mono-seed oils that can offer higher levels of heart-healthy fatty acids. Those are developed through selective growing and genetic modification.

And there is more on the horizon, as food processors and suppliers work together to develop applications and products that result in familiar products with better nutritional profiles and clean labels.

"We've seen a large growth in heart-healthy, high-oleic canola oil for frying and would anticipate additional growth as high-oleic soybean oil arrives in the near future," Jansen says. "On the shortening side, enzymatic interesterification is being used more often to rearrange fatty acids, allowing us to combine liquid and fully hardened oils into functional bakery shortenings with zero trans per serving and lower saturates based on the selected salad oil addition."

Most recently, Bunge has created shortening products that incorporate cellulosic fiber allowing for dramatic reductions in saturates when compared to legacy hydrogenated or palm-based alternatives.

Since 2011 Cargill has marketed the Clear Valley line of oils that are designed to be naturally, high in oleic acid. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid that has been associated with decreased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and possibly increased high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

Wainwright said he expects more innovations in the area of hard fractions and trait-specific products. And he describes the end result in the example of a bakery customer that recently came to Cargill looking for some help in achieving a clean label. "We worked with them and we were able to achieve that clean label they were after," he says.

These new products cost more than others, but as they are produced in higher volume that could change. So while the oil arena has been stood on its head in the past decade, soon enough processors may be back to looking mostly at cost and function.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.

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