As consumers look for more "good" fats and oils, they shop for specific health benefits and products that also taste good. But there are many different kinds of fat — saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fat — and tasty or not, they don't have the same health benefits.
Product formulators must factor in whether certain oils and fats will be acceptable from a health standpoint and a clean label ingredient perspective as they gear up for the changing Nutrition Facts panel and new ingredient definitions coming into play.
"Shopping for healthy oils ranks as a consumer priority along with seeking out high-protein or low-sugar food products," notes David Sprinkle, research director of Packaged Facts (www.packagedfacts.com), Rockville, Md.
Polyunsaturated fats can benefit the heart when used in moderation. They provide nutrients to help develop and maintain cells and often contain vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.
Best of all, polyunsaturated fats can replace saturated fat and trans fat. And the general consensus of medical, scientific, heart-health, governmental and professional authorities is certain fats, such as trans fat and saturated fat, cause heart disease. But the advice now has shifted away from "eat less fat" to "eat the right fats."
Trans fats' primary source in the food supply are partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which are linked with the risk of heart disease, cancer and the risk of diabetes. PHOs were popular years ago because they were an easy substitute for saturated fats -- inexpensive, long lasting and gave foods flavor and texture.
Saturated fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol levels and cause other troubles. For decades, PHOs were a healthy replacement, but more recent research indicates PHOs and their resulting trans fats both raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. So the FDA ruled in 2015 that PHOs are unsafe, revoking their GRAS status and giving the food industry until June 2018 to eliminate them from products.
Yet for certain food products, processors have found PHOs difficult to replace. Functional emulsifiers or hydrocolloids might be used in PHO replacements, and suppliers are making progress reducing sat fat content in efforts to develop PHO alternatives that provide similar, and in some cases better, functionality at a similar cost. "The real issue for food manufacturers and ingredient providers is to utilize fats and oils that provide functional qualities — shelf stability, flavor, mouthfeel, texture and structure — at a price point acceptable to consumers," says. Frank Flider, an oils expert at Qualisoy (www.qualisoy.com), Chesterfield, Mo.
Flider notes says consumers are acutely aware of the dangers of trans-fatty acids and are staying away from PHOs. On the other hand, "Oils with high levels of monounsaturated fats, such as soybean oil, olive oil and canola oil, are extremely popular as are oils containing polyunsaturated fats with low levels of saturated fats."
UltraBlends shortenings and oils from Bunge North America (bungenorthamerica.com) eliminate trans fat and optimize saturated fats, while delivering functionality and taste. They're made using an enzymatic interesterification process of rearranging the fatty acids that gives them structure and functionality at room temperature. The company's Whole Harvest non-GMO Project Verified canola and soybean oils are expeller pressed and minimally refined, which makes them suitable for clean label applications.
"Soybean oil is the most commonly used oil in the U.S., and by providing a scalable organic choice, we’re helping customers meet increasing demand for organic products." says Anthony Williams, Bunge's vice president of sales and marketing.
Plant-based fats and oils are good options because they're vegan, but they can sometimes have stronger flavors that limit their usage or carry higher prices. "Maintaining taste levels has been a challenge, particularly since the use of PHOs will soon be a thing of the past," Flider adds. "No matter how good it tastes, a greasy doughnut or an icing structured like candle wax will turn off consumers."
Canola oil has a buttery flavor, and is low in saturated fat and has no trans fat. Cargill (www.cargill.com) offers a few highly stable, high-oleic-acid canolas with 65 and 80 percent oleic acid, which provide oxidative resistance that ups shelf life.
Organic sunflower oil has a neutral flavor, a longer shelf life than most oils and helps create better texture, according to the National Sunflower Assn. (www.sunflowernsa.com).
The top three contributors of saturated fat in the American diet are crackers, cookies and granola bars, claims Eric Decker, food science department head at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is exploring ways to improve the nutrition of foods high in saturated fats and replace more of them with unsaturated fats. His results should help food processors comply with the updated Dietary Guidelines recommending that Americans consume less than 10 percent of calories a day from saturated fats (butter, cheese, fatty meat) to reduce heart disease risk.
Decker says the top sat fat products are low in moisture, so reformulating them to reduce saturated fat content is challenging. Since the fats are replaced by liquid oils, the reformulation can reduce shelf life and nutrition and affect texture and flavor.
The growth of olive oil
Olive oil has become a worldwide favorite, and it's showing up in products with claims such as "organic popcorn with olive oil" and "California olive oil," Packaged Facts' Sprinkle says. Olive oil is made in several varieties including refined, pomace, virgin and extra virgin, with differing qualities, based on processing methods, nutritional value, color and flavor.
Extra virgin is unrefined, extracted simply by crushing the olives and is higher in quality, which usually makes it darker in color and more expensive. Another characteristic is its extremely high levels of polyphenols. These compounds act as antioxidants and protect cells against unwanted inflammation and disease. It also contains healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, known to be exceptional for the heart and high in vitamin E, which guards cells from damaging free radicals.
Many consumers are returning to butter, recognizing butter it as "real" and tasty and less of a health threat than some vegetable oils. A nice compromise is mixing in a little olive oil, as Land O' Lakes does with its new spreadable butter containing olive oil and sea salt. Each 1-oz serving is gluten-free, has 90 calories and is soft and ready to use out of the tub. With 11g of total fat, it has 6g of saturated fat and no trans fats, sugars or carbohydrates.
Other oils, including coconut, palm and palm oil blends, also are gaining ground as PHO substitutes where the use of solid fat is acceptable.
If there's a downside to the other plant-based oils – especially corn, sesame, safflower, and sunflower oils – it's their high levels of omega-6 fatty acids and lack of omega-3s. The body needs both, and they're best consumed through foods, but the typical American diet has way too much omega-6 and not enough mega-3. Despite all of its essential uses, omega-6s at higher levels are associated with inflammatory diseases.
The body needs about twice as much omega-6 than omega-3, but most consumers get 20 to 100 times as much omega-6. To balance the equation, many processors are supplementing with omega-3s, which are vital for proper cell function and have powerful cognitive development and heart and eye health benefits.
Algae-based oils are an exciting, new development in adding omega-3s. "They potentially represent a new source of fats and oils. Their success will be determined by whether they can compete in terms of availability, functionality and cost-competitiveness," Flider says.
In early April, Archer Daniels Midland (www.adm.com), Chicago, introduced Onavita DHA Omega-3 algal oil, incorporating nutrients having powerful cognitive and heart health benefits. The oil can be used in vegan and allergen-free applications such as toddler nutrition, snack bars, cereals, confections, dairy products, beverages and sauces and dressings.