In December of last year, Peter Jennings hosted a program on ABC television lambasting the food industry for its contribution to the growing obesity “epidemic” in the U.S. He cited advertising that was directed at children, the great discrepancy between new product releases that were construed as healthy versus truly healthy foods and the high amount of fat and sugar in the American diet. Again, the food industry has been put on the defensive for doing its job: catering to the demands of the consuming public.

Public Perception

Many consumers perceive fats and oils as “bad” for them since they contain more calories. Consumers also feel they must be concerned about saturated fats, fats of animal origin, the so-called tropical oils and now trans-fatty acids. Statistics show the average consumer ingests 500 more calories daily than ten years ago, so it appears that these warnings are not registering. Is it possible to protect the public from itself?

The industry seems to be trying. Of course, the task would be much easier if there was not so much misinformation on fats and oils. There have been allegations that trans fats cause diabetes (which is untrue), and that partially hydrogenated oil means it is composed of all trans fats. Palm and coconut oil products have never quite recovered from allegations that they act like animal fats in the body, so some processors have been loathe to utilize a product that could help alleviate other concerns.

The one fact that no one can argue with is that people like to eat. Eating provides the energy to keep us going, but it is also a pleasure. No matter how much we hear about diet and health, there is no denying the fact that fatty foods taste good. Fats carry flavor, they impart richness to foods, and give the impression that a food is moist. Fatty foods also give the consumer a feeling of satiety. That feeling should signal that a person has had enough food. The bottom line is that any food that is manufactured must satisfy the consumer and be something that will be purchased again and again. This, unfortunately, is where many of the low-calorie, low-fat, no-fat foods that have been developed have failed.

Lard to Tropical Oils

In July 2003, the FDA amended the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1994 to require the labeling of trans fatty acids. This ruling was made, in part, because of health concerns with regards to these compounds. Trans fats have been shown to act much like saturated fats in the body, potentially increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The food industry has until January 1, 2006 to comply with the labeling regulation. However, many companies have been quite proactive in looking for alternatives to hydrogenated fats and oils.

The task has not been easy since hydrogenation allows suppliers of fats and oils to produce a wide range of functional ingredients with very specific benefits for many different products. This is particularly so for the baked goods industry. Prior to the development of the hydrogenation process in 1903, the fats used in baking were either vegetable oils or animal fats. Liquid oils were and still are used in many products, but simply do not work well if one is trying to make cookies, puff pastries or other bakery products. Even though there are many formulators (for example, those who work with specialty products such as meat pies) who will swear there is nothing better than lard or tallow, it is not likely that a large food processor would replace hydrogenated fats with these ingredients.

Public concern about trans fatty acids has prompted some companies to take another look at palm and coconut fats and oils. According to Peter Mattson of the product development firm Mattson and Company (Foster City, Calif.), clients are asking about the feasibility of substituting palm or coconut products for hydrogenated oils. The extent of the original charges that those kinds of ingredients were health hazards was possibly overblown.

Snack food producers outside the U.S. already use “tropical oils” for high-quality frying and flavor instead of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. It is likely that concerns about trans fatty acids will encourage U.S. snack producers to begin using these products again. Research conducted at North Carolina State University (Raleigh) indicates that finishing fried foods (such as French fries or chicken nuggets) in trans-free oils results in finished products with lower levels of trans fats.

According to Monoj Gupta of MG Edible Oil Consulting International (Richardson, Texas), concerns about trans fats have revived interest in interesterification. Using chemical catalysts or an enzymatic process, unique low- or no-trans products may be produced. Interesterification produces ingredients that contain higher levels of saturated fatty acids, but the combined levels of saturates and trans acids in such products is considerably lower than in a hydrogenated product.

Many oil suppliers are, in fact, using interesterification to produce the functional fats so important to baking and other operations. Gupta notes that suppliers of edible oils also have been working to produce new products that could be low- or no-trans substitutes for traditional oils such as soybean and canola. These include modified sunflower, soybean and palm oils, which often have higher levels of oleic acid than their predecessors, further enhancing their value. There is a downside, however. Gupta calculates that current production volumes of the new products are insufficient to meet existing needs.

In an effort to reduce calories and maintain flavor, texture and mouthfeel, many processors are using modified triglycerides or fats. These products are fats that do not act like fats. One supplier produces a triglyceride which has only four to six calories per gram as compared to nine. This is done by inserting one or more short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) into the triglyceride. The SCFAs reduce the overall caloric value of the product, making it closer to that of proteins or carbohydrates. The company uses acetic, propionic or butyric acid, or combinations of the three in their products. The longer the short-chain acid, the higher the caloric value. This ingredient may be substituted in whole or in part for full-fat products in baked goods, chocolates, and confectionery products without affecting that all-important factor: consumer perception. It may also be used for coatings and chocolate cup-type products.

Other processors are looking to substitute mid-chain triglyceride (MCTs) products in their formulations. These are composed of caprylic and capric (C-8 and C-10) acids derived from coconut or palm kernel oils. MCTs have a lower caloric value and are currently being used in sports beverages, reduced trans products, healthy cooking oils, and in beverages for cloud stability.

Since so many people like fried foods, there are efforts to reduce the levels of fat in those products, also. Coating companies have been developing products that not only will provide consumers the crisp bite they desire, but also will absorb less fat during the frying process. These products generally utilize modified starches or cellulose-based components in the coatings. Studies have shown that oil pickup is reduced, decreasing the overall caloric value.

Retail Products

The effects of the Atkins and Mediterranean diet crazes definitely show in many markets. A walk through the store, particularly an upscale market, will reveal olive oil products from Italy, Spain, Portugal and, yes, the U.S. The state of California is producing more high-end, gourmet olive oil products. These include olive oil, flavored oils and dipping sauces. Most stores carry canola, corn, sunflower, soy, peanut and safflower oils, but gourmet stores offer products from avocados, walnuts, hazelnuts, flaxseeds, grapeseeds and almonds.

Many of the specialty oils are not refined. They are extracted using an expeller press and may be labeled as organic. The average consumer has no knowledge that some of the oils offered on the market are refined, bleached and deodorized following extraction using hexane. Finished products contain none of the chemical used in the extraction process, but the fact that these products are produced using a natural process makes them attractive to many consumers. There is a concern with such oils, especially if expeller oils are used as an ingredient in organic foods.

Due to the nature of the process, expeller oils may contain residual protein from the oil seed and could, therefore, elicit an allergic reaction. Therefore, consumers and processors who use or may wish to use these products need to beware that allergens may be an issue.

What Next?

Contrary to Jennings' allegations, the food industry is taking steps to address the obesity epidemic in this country. Oil processors are working to produce healthier oils to replace those containing trans fats; ingredient suppliers are manufacturing products that will help reduce the fat content of foods; and the industry, as a whole, is trying to educate the consumer about the values of healthy, balanced diets and exercise. There is one issue that people seem to ignore, however. It is the goal of the food business to make money. Consumers want to buy products that taste good and fulfill a need. A healthy or low-fat product that does not meet their desires will not go far, so everyone loses.