Trans Fat Solutions Continue To Evolve

March 3, 2008
The trans fat disclosure ruling of 2006 continues to challenge processors, but oil alternatives are getting better all the time.

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. (, 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. (, 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 (, 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. (, 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. (, 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.

The American Palm oil Council (, Torrance, Calif., points to palm oil as a solution to the trans fat dilemma. Not only is it naturally trans fat-free, it’s rich in valuable nutrients. Palm oil is derived from the fleshy fruit of the oil palm. The virgin oil, about 50 percent saturated fat (mostly palmitic acid and not considered an elevator of blood cholesterol) and rich in oleic acid, is bright orange-red due to the high content of beta-carotene. It resists oxidation and can withstand prolonged elevated temperatures due both to the absence of linolenic acid and presence of additional natural antioxidants, such as tocotrienols and vitamin E.

These traits have made palm oil the choice of many manufacturers and end-users around the world who incorporate it in their frying oil blends or use it as a 100-percent replacement for hydrogenated oils. Its fatty-acid profile makes it a natural for bakery applications and margarine production, where avoidance of trans fats is key to attracting customers.

There are different types of palm oil. It’s derived from both the pulp of the fruit and the seed kernel. Both palm oil and palm kernel oil can be further fractionated into olein (more liquid) and stearin (more solid) fats.

Soy revival
Thirty years ago, few people were interested a new soy oil. The standard stuff was doing well. Then the trans fat hit the fan and suddenly decades of research by agronomists and food scientists at Iowa State University became very important, for it culminated in soy oil with a mere 1 percent linolenic acid. Regular soybean oil contains approximately 7 percent linolenic acid.

Once the genetic fraction affecting fatty acid production in soybeans was identified, through careful breeding (and using no genetically modified organisms), an ideal soy oilseed for food processors was developed. Asoyia, the company that grew out of the Iowa Quality Agricultural Guild, sells the innovative soy oil and guides the process from ground to bottle. The company is actively recruiting more farmers to grow the new soybeans to meet demand for this unique oil.

“Naturally altering the fatty acid profiles of food oils can create healthier products that are lower in trans fats and saturated fats that are more acceptable to heart-healthy conscious consumers,” says Greg Keeley, CEO of Asoyia LLC (, Iowa City, Iowa. Asoyia also is developing an ultra low-linolenic acid, high-oleic specialty oil.

”Specialty soybeans and other oil producing seed varieties will become the norm in the future,” adds Keeley. “Vegetable oils that are bred to reduce rancidity and improve health profiles will be the mainstream of food oils that are necessary for food processing and restaurant applications in the future.”

Solving the technical challenges
Turning to new oils doesn’t solve the entire industry’s dilemma. So entrenched are hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils in the food supply that replacing them requires solving certain technical problems.

“Partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil results in the improvement of the oxidative stability and functionality of the vegetable oil,” says ADM’s Tiffany. “It also modifies the melting properties of vegetable oils to make them suitable for many food and industrial applications.”

ADM offers a complete line of low-trans alternatives under the NovaLipid trademark that meet the FDA guidelines for “0g trans fat per serving.” They include naturally stable oils, trait enhanced oils, palm blends and enzymatically interesterified soybean oil.

Interesterification rearranges the fatty acids in soybean oil by blending saturated fats with unsaturated oils to achieve specific functional attributes. The process is controlled either chemically or enzymatically.

“The enzymatic rearrangement process creates the functionality needed for various applications and with soybean oil as the liquid component. The level of polyunsaturated fatty acids is significantly increased compared to the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil that is being replaced,” says Tiffany.

Products in the NovaLipid line include shortenings and margarines based on enzymatic interesterification of soybean oil and fully hydrogenated soybean oil (complete saturation with stearic acid making up about 88 percent of total saturates). Stearic acid, though a saturated fatty acid, is considered neutral in its influence on risk factors associated with coronary heart disease, according to the American Heart Assn. and the World Health Organization.

“One needs to consider the complete balance of fatty acids present in low trans alternatives being offered and not focus on the source of oil or fat used in their formulation,” says Tiffany.

In the oven
“The bakery category is perhaps among the most technically challenging for conversions because of the vital role shortenings play in finished goods,” says Bob Wainwright, technical director for Cargill Dressings, Sauces & Oils (, Minneapolis. Structure, body, creaming, aeration, shelf life, texture, geometry and oil migration are all critical roles played by solid shortenings, he explains.

Delivering functionality and optimal performance is a creative process that involves balancing ingredient interactions, process controls and formulations and recalibrating these variables to derive new shortening systems.

“Cargill has a broad portfolio of ingredients that addresses both nutrition and/or functionality,” says Wainwright. “For example, TransEnd brand is a zero-trans solid shortening developed for the manufacture of pastries, biscuits, crackers, pie crusts and dry mixes. TransEnd delivers similar functionality, mouth feel and shelf life stability of conventional all-purpose shortenings, but with about 1 percent trans fats and only 20 percent saturated fat content,” explains Wainwright.

“We partner with major bakery customers everyday and can support them with a variety of solutions based on the goals they have for their brands,” continues Wainwright. “Because of this partnership approach, some solutions are readily available. Brand names include: Preference salad and cooking oils; Advantage, Clear Valley and Odyssey high stability oils; TransAdvantage shortening systems and flakes; and Stable Flake and Regal Flake flaked fat systems. We can come up with solutions that we don't even know exist.”

For many applications, non-fat ingredients can provide characteristics that eliminate the need for trans fats. Methocel-brand food gums, from Dow Wolff Cellulosics Food & Nutrition (, Indianapolis, are a family of water-soluble gums made from natural cellulose. As a substitute for trans fats, they are non-caloric, virtually colorless, odorless and tasteless in food formulations.

The gums serve as binders, emulsifiers, stabilizers, suspension agents, protective colloids and thickeners   a combination of properties unique among food ingredients. They also are resistant to high shear, low pH, and maintain stability after freeze-thaw and heating conditions. When heated, they produce a gel that does not release oil or water.

These properties make Methocel ideal for meat applications like sausages, frankfurters and veggie burgers. The same is true of processed baked goods. For cookies, muffins, cakes and crackers, emulsions made with Methocel allow healthier oils to replace those containing trans fats, while also imparting improved texture, moisture, uniformity and crumb structure.

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