The words “healthy” and “fat” rarely go together. However, food processors know that countless consumer products would not exist without the structure and taste provided by fat and oil.
In order to reconcile the need for fats and oils in processed food with the powerful consumer desire for better-for-you food, fat and oil suppliers are working on products that meet both requirements.
“It’s always a challenge to balance the health profile of fats and oils with their ease of use in food processing,” notes Kamesh Ellajosyula, chief innovation officer at Olam Food Ingredients, which supplies a range of nut oils to food processors.
Fats and oils create the structure that undergirds baked goods, sauces, ice cream and hundreds of other processed foods. They also improve the texture and taste of these foods.
Trans fats, which were created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, such as in partially hydrogenated oil, were wonderful at those functionalities and applications. They were easy to use, inexpensive and with numerous desirable attributes. But their negative effects on serum cholesterol led to their demise. The FDA removed them from the "Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) list in 2015, banned them from most food applications in mid-2018 and enforced a total ban beginning Jan. 1, 2020.
The ban on trans fat made many formulators revert back to saturated fat. Saturated fats are fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules. Like trans fats, saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature. They are often used in desserts, processed meats and processed dairy foods.
But health-conscious consumers are wary of saturated fat and have been for years because it tends to raise a person’s LDL cholesterol. Even though recent research shows that some saturated fats might have health benefits, such fat used in food processing is generally considered unhealthy.
When food processors moved away from trans and saturated fats – which are prized for ease of use in processed food – food manufacturers need to exert much tighter controls on their processing.
“As functional and nutritional specifications become tighter, so must the process control,” says Bob Johnson, technical sales and marketing manager of Fuji Vegetable Oil Inc.
“Our customers who had wide usage ranges for temperature or processing time when they used trans fatty acids found that with non-trans fats, the fats get softer, and as you get softer, it gets more difficult to process," explains John Satumba, North America research and development director for global edible oil solutions at Cargill. "It might be stickier or overall less structured. So we try to formulate the most functional saturates, so our customers get the most functionality for the saturates that are in the product." photo: Cargill
“Our customers who had wide usage ranges for temperature or processing time when they used trans fatty acids found that with non-trans fats, the fats get softer, and as you get softer, it gets more difficult to process. It might be stickier or overall less structured. So we try to formulate the most functional saturates, so our customers get the most functionality for the saturates that are in the product.”
John Satumba, North America research and development director for global edible oil solutions at Cargill, explains that sometimes the reduction in saturated fat can be accommodated by combining various fat and oil products.
“For example, our Clear Valley All-Purpose Shortening is a blend of high oleic canola and hydrogenated cottonseed oils,” Satumba says. “This shortening contains 23% saturated fat, compared to palm, which has 50%. Equally important, Clear Valley All Purpose Shortening still delivers on plasticity, sensory attributes and ease of use in operations – all critical factors to our bakery customers.”
In other cases, the fat and oil supplier can add different ingredients altogether to create a product that meets the processor’s needs.
“In some cases, we can address a customer’s request using multi-ingredient system innovation,” Satumba says. “This allows us to leverage other ingredients to provide some of the key functionality traditionally provided by a fat.
"For example, protein and fiber can add emulsification and body, respectively," he continues. "As an added benefit, these ingredients also add nutritional value to the finished product. We see many opportunities to increase innovation around the entire system, not just the individual oils.”
When a food processor changes to a healthier fat or oil with different structural characteristics, the manufacturing process itself often has to be changed as well, Satumba adds. For example, the order and rate of ingredient inclusions may need to be changed to get the desired finished product.
“Once we understand the challenge, we can look at the entire ecosystem encompassing both formulation and processing,” he concludes.
A positive health claim
While the FDA acted negatively toward trans fats, the agency approved a qualified cardiovascular health claim for edible oils containing high levels of oleic acid at the end of 2018. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat that’s been shown to have cardiovascular benefits when it replaces heart-damaging saturated fat.
Edible oils must contain at least 70% oleic acid to meet the criteria for this qualified health claim. Specified edible oils include: high-oleic sunflower oil, high-oleic safflower oil, high-oleic canola oil, olive oil and high-oleic algal oil.
Sunflower oil suppliers can offer two levels of oleic acid, according to John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Assn. One variety meets the 70% threshold, but another variety of sunflower oil offers 82% oleic acid. Those levels were achieved through traditional plant breeding, he points out, not genetic modification. "There are no [genetically modified] sunflowers anywhere in the world," he notes.
In addition to being low in saturated fat, sunflower oil also is low in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that lacks stability and shelf life can impart a negative taste, according to Sandbakken. And sunflower oil has the highest content of vitamin E of any oil, he adds.
Sunflower oil has been popular in a number of applications, especially potato chips, and recently has become a popular oil for plant-based analogues. "In addition to a neutral taste and long shelf life, sunflower oil improves mouthfeel, texture and taste" in plant-based foods, he says.
High-oleic soybean oil was not on the original FDA list of oils that can use the heart-health claim, but only because there wasn't enough high-oleic soybeans to pursue the claim, a spokesperson for the United Soybean Board told us in 2018.
"The soybean industry was in the beginning stages of building the market for high-oleic soybean oil when the petition was created," the spokesperson said. "The [soybean] industry is committed to producing 9 billion pounds of U.S.-grown high-oleic soybean oil by 2027, and high oleic soybeans are on track to be the fourth largest row crop by 2024."
While fats and oils often are perceived as necessary evils, some offer important health benefits. And some fat, of course, is essential to the diet. Food processors seeking to improve the overall health perception of their product sometimes do that by choosing a different oil.
“Depending on the fatty acid profile, oils have their own health benefits, which help with heart, brain and eye health as well as lower cholesterol and reduce inflammation in the body,” notes Maryann Siciliano, national sales manager for Arista Industries Inc., which provides vegetable oils and marine oils, such as cod liver oil and salmon oil.
“Oils containing omega-3 and 6 are polyunsaturated essential fatty acids, which the body does not make, so these have to be included in one's diet, (as well as) omega-9, which includes oleic acid, a fairly stable unsaturated fat.”
Siciliano explains that omega-3 is found in fish oil, flax oil and walnut oil; omega-6 is derived from borage, black currant, black cumin and evening primrose; and omega-9 commonly comes from avocado, canola, olive and sunflower oils.
“Many oils contain a mixture of omegas, but there are notable ratios of both omega-3 and 6 in chia seed oil and hempseed oil; omega-3, 6 and 9 in sacha inchi; and omega-2, 6, 7 and 9 in sea buckthorn,” Siciliano adds.
Obviously, the choice of oil or fat is also influenced by the product and the manufacturing process. Nut oils, for example, are usually used in dressings because high heat can damage their flavor, Ellajosyula says. Cashew oil is often used in mayonnaise, and almond oil—which has a high smoke point (242°C)—is sometimes used to fry snack chips to impart a roasted, nutty taste.
“Nut oils are low in saturated fats, rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and contain omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, which can reduce the risk of developing heart disease,” he says. “Tree nut oils in particular are a great source of vitamin E, and cashew oil offers a similar overall fatty acids profile to olive oil.”
Ellajosyula adds that oil manufacturers often use technology to improve the health profile of certain oils. For example, manufacturers have developed technology to create soy and canola oil with high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA).
MUFA is considered “healthy” fat because it reduces inflammation and helps increase “good” cholesterol. High-MUFA soy and canola oil perform well in high-temperature ovens and frying, Ellajosyula says.
Another key thing to understand when it comes to choosing oils is that some “healthier” oils simply don’t work well in a food processing setting. Olive oil, for example, has a healthy image because it has a high level of MUFA. But, Ellajosyula says, the double-bond chemical structure in olive oil makes it susceptible to oxidation, which lowers its smoke point to level that is unsuitable for any high-temperature application.
“Here we have seen manufacturers beginning to use olive pomace oil, which can be used as an alternative in high-temperature processing,” Ellajosyula says.
Improved shelf life
The shelf life of oils and fats and the temperatures they need to be stored in vary, and that is another consideration for food processors trying to choose healthier fats and oils. For example, oils with polyunsaturated fat – which is another “healthy” fat – are often less stable than other oils, Fuji’s Johnson explains.
“The big challenge with algae and fish oils, which are primary sources for nutritional oils, are that the shelf life is not very long,” Johnson says. His company has developed "Fuji Stabilization Technology" that extends the life of such oils. The technology has been commercialized in Asia and is currently expanding to North America.
Siciliano says the shelf-life of Arista oils is often preserved with nitrogen, which counters the effects of oxygen on the products.
“Most of Arista’s oils are fully refined in order to offer a very stable, quality product, and most of our drummed material is nitrogen blanketed to preserve the quality and freshness [without] adding a preservative,” Siciliano says.
“The nitrogen blanketed drum preserves the quality and freshness of the oil in the drums for 2 years-plus for most oils. This does get released when the drums are open, so final formulas should use a preservative and there are many natural preservatives that work well with oils.”
The inclusion of fats and oils in processed food will always add calories and change the nutritional profile, but they are a necessary ingredient. Fortunately, today processors can often find solutions that provide the structure they need while also offering a better-for-you profile.