In 2003, Wheeling, Ill.-based Cookie Specialties Inc. eliminated trans fats from their 30-year-old Matt's Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe by using a blend of palm, soybean and canola oils. Originally, Cookie Specialties used partially hydrogenated soybean oil. None of their loyal customers asked for the change, however, the company's primary motivation came from a Whole Foods Market policy citing that the natural foods grocery chain would no longer carry any product in their bakeries that contained trans fat. Though Cookie Specialties had only changed the formula twice in 30 years, company officials knew that hydrogenation soon would become an issue and switching to “no trans fat” was worth the risk.

Like many bakers, Matt Pierce, vice president of Cookie Specialties, decided to pursue a palm oil blend because palm oil contains more solid fat at room temperature than most other oils. Nevertheless, it took five to six years to perfect the final cookie formula. The main challenge was determining where to start and how to find a supplier to make a substitute for partially hydrogenated oil, the baking industry staple. “Before that, we tried a number of oils that tasted weird, not bad, just weird,” says Pierce. As a result of the new oil blend, Pierce's company expects to reap satisfying results after introducing a “no trans fat” re-formulation of their fresh baked products in June 2003. Thus far, they've had no complaints from customers.

Trans fatty acids are created when liquid oils are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated to produce fat solids required for functionality. When replacing trans fat with blended oil, the final shortening product usually is a blend of vegetable oils, emulsifiers, hydrocolloids and gums. Fat is an important component in baked goods because it adds moisture, flavor and retards the staling process.

Interesterification is the process of reorganizing the fatty acids in the triglyceride. It is one of the best answers to creating fat and oil ingredients to replace trans fat, but the process is approximately 20% more expensive than regular shortening processes currently in use, says Clyde Stauffer, a technical food consultant specializing in bakery products.

Fractionation, the process of separating the solid and oil fractions, is less expensive than interesterification, but fractionation can produce undesirable qualities. An example would be the waxy texture of palm stearin produced from fractionated palm oil. Since no one protocol has been identified as best, Stauffer suggests fat and oil processors use a combination of interesterification and fractionation techniques. Depending on the characteristics desired in the final product, the process would involve the fractionation of fully hydrogenated oil such as palm blended with soybean or canola liquid oil and then interesterified and fractionated again. This, however, is more costly than interesterification alone.

Fractionation of liquid fats like palm oil is widely used in the Middle East. Palm oil has grown in popularity domestically because, naturally, it only contains roughly 1-2% trans fatty acids. Palm oil can be separated into fractions high in olein and stearin fatty acids. Since the oil is more fully saturated than other vegetable oils, less hydrogenated fat is needed to create fat solids during interesterificaton. Often, like in Matt's Cookies, palm oil is used in combination with other liquid oils to create the characteristics of partially hydrogenated oil, without the trans fat.

A couple of years ago, most of the substitutes for hydrogenation were liquid oil. Generally, liquid oils are unsuitable for bakery products and are rarely used unblended in foods. The reduction of partially hydrogenated and saturated fat in products has contributed to the addition of more sugars, gums, emulsifiers and hydrocolloids. Emulsifiers not only promote the water-in-oil mixture, but also increase shelflife.

“Most people in our industry can't seem to get away from some type of hydrogenated oils because the shelflife is so lousy on non-hydrogenated oils,” says Pierce. The shelflife of baked products with mono- or diglyceride fatty acids that are non-hydrogenated are less stable because the double bonds on the fatty acid part of the emulsifiers make it more difficult for the molecules to complex with starch molecules. Thus, it is less effective at impeding crystallization and staling. Double bonds in liquid oils also are prone to oxidation, which explains why some have flat or off flavors.

Product temperature is very important in the production of bakery products. For example, in making croissants, Stauffer says, “if the temperature gets too high, the fat will melt between the layers and you lose the layers.” Adding fat tenderizes the product but the mouthfeel of the product could be compromised if the melting point is too high or low.

A lot of melted and cooled vegetable oils form Beta crystals. As a result, Stauffer believes, achieving spreadability or plasticity is the main challenge of formulating a non-hydrogenated fat or margarine spread. Both properties are defined by the product's solid fat index (SFI) profile, which is determined by measuring the amount of fat solids created as oil is cooled. Fat solids, in particular, contribute to the structural characteristics of cookies, cakes, croissants and breads. Most baked goods require Beta prime fats such as those found in palm and cottonseed oils, which provide a smoother and creamier texture.

The reduction of partially hydrogenated and saturated fat in products has contributed to the addition of more sugars, gums, emulsifiers and hydrocolloids. Emulsifiers not only promote the water-in-oil mixture, but also increase shelflife. Stauffer believes manufacturers should not have to change their basic formula much. “Where they will run into some problems is in the processing. The processing parameters might very well change because trans fats have different SFI curves then the ones we're normally used to,” considers Stauffer.

Pierce's goal was to obtain a shortening that would maintain the taste, texture and shelflife of his cookies. The reality is that one cannot eliminate trans fat entirely and maintain a functional product—that is the core of the challenge in reducing trans fats. In general, “no trans fat” claims pertain to trans fat levels below 0.5g/serving size and not in the complete product.

While American consumers lie awake at night worrying about their new boogey man, trans fatty acids, they forget they are still sleeping with the enemy—saturated fat. Some manufacturers are willing to increase their saturated fat content to lower the trans fat content and mislead customers into believing the reformulated no trans-fat product is healthier. At the moment, some consumers do not realize that both types of fat increase LDLs, which contribute to atherosclerosis and high cholesterol. However, in the long run, when a healthier product is the goal, manufacturers will do better to play it straight by focusing on lowering not just the saturated fat or trans fat but the total fat content.

Website Resources — FDA info. on July 2003 trans fatty acids ruling, with links to related sites — Harvard info. on trans fats — American Heart Assn. info on trans fatty acids

How to be Trans Fat-free

Before rushing to reduce trans fats and simultaneously retain the functional properties needed to produce a desirable baked good, Stauffer advises the following considerations:

n Aside from interesterification and fractionation, there are other processes available. Talk with suppliers about the types of alternative ingredients they offer and how much they will cost.

n Ask suppliers how reliable the chosen oil supply is and in what range its price fluctuates. Stauffer cautions that many domestic suppliers processing no trans oil products have not scaled-up from pilot plant level and, if the demand for no trans foods increases, there will be a temporary deficit in supply.

n Compare processes by spending time in the lab or pilot plant with your product. Keep in mind your specific SFI, taste and texture profiles, and the feasibility of obtaining the same results with the new oi

Going Global

Trans fatty acids have stepped further into the light of American consumer opinion and criticism after an announcement by the FDA requiring labeling of products containing trans fats by 2006. Canola Harvest Premium Margarine, Fleischmann's Light Margarine, and Smart Balance Light buttery spread are only a few of the products launched in 2003 that have “no trans fat” claims.

Consumers in Turkey and Malaysia are not losing sleep over the amount of trans fats in their baked products. However, those same countries supply canola, soy bean, palm and many other vegetable oils as the predominant substitutes for trans fat in North American baked products. In Canada, cocoa butter is the oil of choice in The Decadent Chocolate Truffle Cake (President's Choice), which contains 0.5g of trans fat and 11g of saturated fat per serving. Using a palm oil blend, Jacob's Sunlife Breakfast Biscuits (Danone) are sold in Malaysia, the world's top palm oil supplier. Bien Hoa's Creamy Strawberry Biscuits made in Vietnam also include palm oil blended with coconut oil. Low Low Gold launched in Ireland by Kerry Foods has a low-fat margarine spread containing no hydrogenated oils and virtually no trans fats.