R&D / Fats, Oils, Omegas / Dietary Guidelines

Trans Fats Inspire Fear and Loathing

With the labeling deadline approaching and consumers becoming wary, processors search for substitutes for the functionality of trans fatty acids.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

Nutrition is beginning to give taste and convenience some competition as the key driver in the food industry. 2005 is becoming a year that has heightened consumers’ awareness of nutrition, first by the introduction of the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans and more recently with the new Food Guide Pyramid. The end of the year will bring the next big nutritional milestone: a required declaration of trans fatty acids in all food products that contain them.

With the deadline still six months away, there already is evidence consumers are becoming aware of the dangers of these fats. Trans fats are being talked about on TV and in magazine and newspaper articles. Many products that already have had their trans fats removed or never had them are touting that claim on their front labels. While the removal of trans fats is not mandatory, consumer awareness – and the social conscience of food processors – may be making it so.

Of the four major kinds of fat found in foods (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans), trans fatty acids are considered to be the most harmful. Trans fats have been linked to elevated blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, increased risk of heart disease and even certain cancers. All those factors are among the reasons the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require their acknowledgement on the Nutrition Facts panel by Jan. 1, 2006.

It’s notable trans fats have less to do with taste than with operational functionality – they make the product look bigger and better, last longer, cost less. As a result, food processors are cautious with their efforts to reduce and remove trans fats. The cost issues are significant, and to date there is no solution that is less expensive operationally.

So why are we making them?

Hydrogenation, the process that creates trans fatty acids, increases the thermal and oxidative stability of the original fat or oil, providing a desired firmness and plasticity to certain processed foods. The food industry values partially hydrogenated fats for their stability and suitability for margarine and creaming/aerating applications, especially in bakery applications. They also increase shelf life.

The purpose of hydrogenation is to solidify vegetable oil by reconfiguring the very same double bonds that characterize liquid oils as healthful mono- and poly-unsaturated ones. The resulting solid, saturated fats with trans or cis single bonds are more stable but not as healthful as the starting raw material.

The addition of atoms to the same side of the double bond creates a “cis” compound; addition to opposite sides form “trans” compounds. The latter are more space-balanced and therefore more easily and more abundantly formed in commercial manufacture and relatively more stable. While it is not possible to control where the atoms are added during hydrogenation, the extent to which it happens can be controlled and, consequently, the range of properties of the partially hydrogenated fat can be managed.

Commercially produced partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, introduced in the early 1990s, are the principal sources of trans fatty acids in the diet of the U.S. population, according to the FDA. The regulatory chemical definition of the FDA for trans fatty acids is "all unsaturated fatty acids that contain one or more isolated (i.e., non-conjugated) double bonds in a trans configuration."

Americans consume about 5.8 g of trans fatty acids daily (or 2.6 percent of all calories), the FDA estimates. Baked goods are the No. 1 source, accounting for 40 percent. Other large contributors are animal products (21 percent), margarine (17 percent), fried potatoes (8 percent) and snack foods (potato chips, corn chips, and popcorn — 5 percent). The agency's final rule mandates that all food manufacturers list trans fatty acids on the Nutrition Facts panel when their products contain at least 0.5 g of trans fatty acids. Health Canada, the Canadian counterpart of the FDA, mandates declaration for products containing 0.2 g or more of trans fatty acids per serving.

The baking industry is the hardest hit because bakery products are typically among the highest in fat and also because they rely heavily on the functionality of partially hydrogenated fats for texture and appearance. Pastries and cookies owe their light, crispy and flaky textures to aeration by saturated and trans fats.

The FDA reports cakes, cookies, crackers, pies and bread are the leading source of the trans fats consumed by Americans. This predominance of usage may cause additional pressure on the baking sector to conform to lowering or eliminating trans fats.

Seafood, which is gaining popularity as a healthful food, also has a problem with added trans fats: They come along with the breading/coating or the frying. Ocean Cuisine International (www.oceancuisine.com), a Danvers, Mass., seafood supplier, has begun removing trans fats. "Phasing out trans fat in our products and encouraging the consumption of seafood can help improve our consumers' nutrition and help them live longer and healthier lives," says Bill DiMento, director of international food safety and regulatory affairs.

Likewise, Gorton's Inc., Gloucester, Mass., removed trans fats from all 56 of its retail frozen seafood products.

Options for removal

The Jan. 1 deadline provides an opportunity for ingredient vendors to develop and market nutritionally superior replacements that can cost-effectively provide the structure, taste and shelf-life functionality of trans fats. At this time, however, no single oil or naturally occurring fat lives up to this tall order.

The range of options for food formulators to reduce or remove trans fats includes one or more of the following:

  • Blending fully hydrogenated fats with liquid oils;
  • Using more stable vegetable oils obtained through biotechnology or traditional plant breeding;
  • Rearranging the chemical structure of unsaturated oils by exchanging with portions of high-saturated fat oils;
  • Employing other ingredients to create trans fatty acids’ functionality texture, strength or volume;
  • Advanced nutritional solutions

Those options in greater detail:

  1. Hydrogenated fats and liquid oil blends

    Tropical oils, used extensively for centuries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, are being revived now as part of the solution to the trans fat problem. Of the tropical oils, palm oil is relatively low in saturated fat content (50 percent) and shows many of the functional properties of partially hydrogenated oils, making it an alternative for providing body and texture to products.

    In addition to versatility, stability and functionality in frying, baking and coating applications, palm oils are similar to soybean oil in price. Fractionation can closely match functionality with most partially hydrogenated oils. Palm oil saturates, ideal for creamy texture and stable aeration required in most baked goods, also are associated with high-density lipoprotein (often called “good” cholesterol).

    Sans Trans cooking oil (www.sanstrans.com) is a palm-oil based solution for trans fat from Loders Croklaan (www.croklaan.com), Channahon, Ill. It does, however, receive criticism from nutritionists for its saturates. Manufacturers of chocolate-based baked goods can have clean label coatings with the right eating qualities with Croklaan's Freedom Series. Both products "are created with lower levels of saturates [relative to hydrogenated or fractionated palm kernel oil] to provide stability to protect the products through distribution," according to Gerald McNeill, technical director for the U.S. arm of this Dutch-owned company.

    Loders Croklaan is part of the world's largest palm oil-producing concern. McNeill notes the Freedom products "deliver steep melting profiles to bridge the gap of nutritional responsibility and great taste."

    An innovative tallow-based solution comes from Source Food Technology (www.nextraoil.com), Durham, N.C. The company licensed technology from Brandeis University to create Nextra cooking oil for foodservice frying. A proprietary blend of tallow with corn oil, Nextra reduces trans fat and its undesirable effects on cholesterol. The oil also delivers a longer fry life and keeps foods hotter longer. "Nextra extends fry life up to two times, and less oil is required to refill or top off fryers," says Hank Cardello, chairman/CEO of Source Food Technology.
  2. Enhanced stability through breeding

    Vistive, a new, low-linolenic strain of soybean seeds developed by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. (www.monsanto.com), produces oils with the functional attributes valued by processors but with reduced or zero trans fats. Reducing the linolenic acid effectively reduces or eliminates the need for partial hydrogenation - the source of trans fats in processed soybean oil. Oil from Vistive soybean seeds (available to farmers for 2005 planting) has less than 3 percent linolenic acid and is more flavorful and stable, with less need for hydrogenation than oils from traditional soybeans with 8 percent linolenic acid.

    "The Natreon solution," explains David Dzisiak, oils and oilseeds global leader for Dow AgroSciences, "is canola bred without transgenic means to yield oils with high levels of the healthful fatty acids, great taste and the right functionality for commercial foodservice fryers." Natreon, from Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences (www.natreon.com), is a virtually zero trans fat vegetable oil with very low levels of saturated fats.

    With about 7 percent saturated fat and 70 percent monounsaturated fat, Natreon also contains more omega-3 polyunsaturated fats than most of the partially hydrogenated oils it can replace. "So consumers can get fried foods containing healthful monounsaturated and omega-3 fats," Dzisiak continues. It also is resistant to high heat and lasts longer than most oils.

    A new soybean oil called Asoyia (www.asoyia.com), produced from 1 percent linolenic soybeans, provides a frying alternative with reduced saturated fat and no trans fats. Asoyia LLC, Winfield, Iowa, is owned by 25 growers of the linolenic soybeans. Cargill processes the soybeans into oil for shipment.

    Nutrium Low Lin is yet another trans fat solution, the result of collaboration between Bunge Foods, St. Louis, and Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., Des Moines, Iowa, a DuPont subsidiary. Pioneer developed the proprietary soybean variety 93M20, which produces oil with less than 3 percent linolenic acid and therefore does not require hydrogenation for stability and shelf life.

    Another trans fat solution from plant breeding is the Trisun series of identity-preserved, high-oleic sunflower seed from Humko Oil Products, a division of ACH Food Cos. Inc., (www.achfood.com), Memphis, Tenn. The resulting oils are rich in oleic acid (80 percent), low in saturated fat and do not need hydrogenation or deodorization for commercial applications. On the finished product label the ingredient shows up as "sunflower oil." The clarity and neutral flavor of the oil allows its use as coating for cereals and dried fruit to prevent moisture loss and enhance shelf life.
  3. Molecularly rearranged solutions

    Enzymatic interesterification rearranges fatty acids in the triglyceride molecule through either chemical or enzyme catalysis. The latter is more efficient in bringing about partial hydrogenation, controlling functionality and melting characteristics without creating trans fats. The enzymatic process has milder processing conditions and produces more natural fats than traditional hydrogenation by preserving the C-2 position and rearranging only the C-1 and C-3 positions of the fat molecule.

    In addition to being cost-effective and functionally viable, enzymatic interesterification technology is more environmental friendly than chemical means.

    Archer Daniels Midland Co., Decatur, Ill., worked with immobilized lipase enzyme (Lipozyme TLIM) interesterification technology from Novozymes AS (www.novozymes.com), Franklinton, N.C., to produce NovaLipid. ADM is advancing the functional properties of palm oil by solidifying it through enzyme interesterification (instead of hydrogenation) and producing a wide and tailored range of zero or low trans fats products for products such as ice cream, margarines, coffee whitener, bakery fillings, and candy coatings.

    "Interesterification is valuable to oil producers for producing solid fats with less trans and saturated fats,” says Ernesto Hernandez, head of the fats and oils processing program at Texas A&M University (www.tamu.edu), College Station, Tex. NovaLipid has FDA's approval to be described as "interesterified" instead of as "hydrogenated."

    Interesterification is allowing margarine producers to make the shift from hydrogenation. But they also are experimenting with different oils and processes to create viable healthful product in a particularly price-sensitive category. The reformulation involves physical blending oils to soften hard fats to create the proper consistency, or enzymatic interesterification where canola oil provides the softening and plasticizing components to the harder palm or palm kernel oil as in the case of Canadian margarines.
  4. Trans fat functionality from other ingredients

    Instead of manipulating fats, fat-substitution technologies have opportunities, especially in food categories that rely on trans fats for creaminess, whipping, emulsion and coating functionality. Food science has created alternatives to provide the desired mouthfeel without harming our cardiovascular systems.

    FiberGel Technologies Inc., Mundelein, Ill., offers Z-Trim, a corn bran-based, zero-calorie fat replacement that can duplicate the functionality of trans fats in food products such as cookies, cakes, pies, brownies and commercially produced dressings, dips, sauces and mayonnaise.

    Another fat replacer for baked products is rice-based CNP Fat Replacer, discovered serendipitously by California Natural Products (www.californianatural.com), Lathrop, Calif., during a search for fat replacement in ice cream applications. "The all-natural rice syrup solid acts like solid fat and helps create the texture associated with shortening in baked products,” says John Ashby, general manager-ingredients. "The ingredient relies on the granulation of rice starch to mimic the slippery, creamy mouthfeel of fat globules, and it duplicates the organoleptic properties of solid fats in ice cream and shortening in baked products." CNP Fat Replacer may be incorporated into a wide variety of baked products exactly like solid fat and with a simply clean label declaration of "rice syrup solids."
  5. Advanced nutritional solutions

    "The tremendous work under way to reformulate and repackage manufactured foods can be turned into a positive for consumers and brands by repositioning food products as being heart-healthy,” says Ian Lucas, vice president of marketing and new product development at Ocean Nutrition, (www.ocean-nutrition.com), a Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, processor of marine-based food ingredients. Not only is the removal of bad fats good for the heart, he says, but the inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids can provide added benefits.

    That’s also the case with a second Source Food Technology product, OmegaSource, a proprietary omega-3 fish oil with specially processed phytosterols (a cholesterol-fighting plant ingredient allowed a heart-health claim by the FDA). Phytosterols also figure in Source Food’s Nextra Gold. The vegetable-based cooking oil without trans fats or cholesterol has phytosterols incorporated to further counter the absorption of cholesterol from fried foods. Source Food has focused on foodservice frying operations because it recognizes the need for viable solutions for a category that reportedly uses five of the total eight billion pounds of frying oil used annually to fry foods in the U.S.

    Antioxidants are another helpful and powerful solution. Palm oils have good shelf life not only because they are low in linolenic and linoleic acids but also because they are rich in antioxidants such as tocopherols and tocotrienols, which help resist oxidation and rancidity. This property has helped food companies such as Kraft and Kellogg to remove trans fats and maintain the shelf life in products such as Golden Uh-Oh!s, and Cracklin' Oat Bran cereals, respectively. According to the American Palm Oil Council (www.americanpalmoil.com), processors stand to benefit tremendously from a growing awareness of the health properties of the antioxidants in addition to the stability it bestows upon the products.

    Another solution is Enova oil. Japan’s Kao Corp. created the product by a proprietary molecular rearrangement of soy and canola oils such that the diacylglycerol concentration is approximately 80 percent, 70 percent of which is made up of the 1,3-form. The configuration allows for Enova oil to be digested and absorbed as triacylglycerols, but to be metabolized as energy.

    Intestinal enzymes cannot metabolize 1,3-diacylglycerols because of their unique shape and conversely cannot recombine them into fat molecules. So less fat passes into the bloodstream to be stored in the body. Enova, introduced in 1999, is the No. 1 premium cooking oil in Japan. The product is made and marketed in the U.S. by a joint venture between Kao and ADM.

    But do we really have to switch? Willie Loh, national sales manager for Cargill Specialty Canola Oils (www.clearvalleyoils.com), Wayzata, Minn., suggests marketers figure out the value of the trans fat-free switch by polling for consumer values and price elasticity. Do customers merely want to minimize trans fats, or are they seeking “front-of-the-package” claims with clear statements such as "zero gram trans fats" or "saturated fat free."

    "While consumers are unlikely to know what trans fats are, they do know they are bad for their health. They also know saturated fats are bad and too many calories are bad." The question, he says, is how much are they willing to pay for these benefits.

In conclusion, it should be acknowledged that some food product developers privately believe the crusade against trans fats is more about marketing and less about health. There also is some concern from food industry critics that the removal of trans fat may create the illusion of food companies doing the healthy thing without really changing their high fat products. That’s especially true for those processors who choose to replace trans fats with high saturated fat alternatives.

But a mandate, even just a labeling one, is still a mandate. And it’s apparent many consumers are catching on. Whatever the cost to the industry of replacing trans fats, the cost of losing consumers is incalculable.

About the Author

Kantha Shelke is a principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago firm that specializes in competitive intelligence and exper witness services. Contact here at kantha@ais.net or 312-951-5810.

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