When the push to remove saturated fats in the 1980s led to widespread use of trans fats (later found to be worse than what they replaced), there was some initial confusion. This was followed by seed and oil science that paired with nutrition biochemistry research to better define the functions of specific fats and oils, both in formulation and in the human body.
Today’s food industry benefits from this wealth of knowledge, and technology is pushing the envelope to tease out ever more subtle nuances of the same.
On a parallel track, science also was revealing that omega oils (a.k.a., omega fatty acids) are as close to a real silver bullet as an ingredient can get, when it comes to health. More than 20,000 papers have been published about omega-3s alone, greatly supporting its reputation as a vital functional ingredient, necessary for sustaining healthy cholesterol levels and an efficient cardiovascular system; eye and neural development and function; improving brain function and cognition in infants and aging adults; decreasing systemic inflammation (thought to be a key process in the persistence of obesity); ameliorating some aspects of diabetes; tempering depression; and enhancing overall health and wellness.
Not all fatty acids are created equal. Omega fatty acids, specifically omega-3 and omega-6 (linoleic fatty acid) are in the polyunsaturated fat category, and omega-9 (oleic fatty acid) is a monounsaturated fat. Human bodies don’t make their own omega-3s, so they are considered “essential” fatty acids. The average U.S. diet is low in omega-3s, with an unnecessary overabundance of omega-6 and omega-9 fats. The oleic (predominantly from avocados, meats and vegetable oils) and linoleic fatty acids (from vegetable oils, seeds and nuts) have not exhibited the same wealth of health as omega-3s (from marine sources and some plant sources, such as walnuts, flax, chia and other seeds), thus driving demand for omega-3s faster than their primary sources can sustainably provide them.
Marine sources of omega-3s are primarily DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Plant forms of omega-3s are in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body metabolizes at only about 10% the efficiency of DHA and EPA. Because of the attention on marine omega-3s, demand has grown geometrically.
According to market researchers Frost & Sullivan, “the DHA/EPA market is forecast to grow to $2.843 billion in 2015” -- almost double the nearly $1.5 billion of 2009 -- itself a huge leap over previous years. Growth is expected to continue at a double-digit annual rate.
And, here’s where science is about to make a great leap forward. Last year, Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. announced a partnership with BASF Plant Science to develop a DHA/EPA vegetable source.
“Oils technology innovation, with the development of deriving DHA and EPA from plant sources, is the next big thing,” says Lorin Debonte, Ph.D., research and development director for Specialty Seeds & Oils, Cargill Inc., North America. “We’re creating plant technology that allows them to make DHA and EPA.”
The plant of choice for this breakthrough is canola. Canola oil currently contains omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids, plus the lowest levels of saturated fat of all commercially available vegetable oils. It starts out at 7% saturates or less, vs. soybean oil at 15-16% saturates, and sunflower oil in the 12% range. The technology, via genetics of plant-based sources such as seaweed and algae to create elongation and saturation factors, will allow canola to produce the same types of highly bioavailable omega-3 fatty acids as are found in salmon, krill and other marine life.
“Genetics isn’t the challenge,” explains Debonte. “The challenges are stabilization of the molecule to allay oxidization.”
Plants have natural oxidation systems, and the chemical double bonds in fatty acids make them especially fragile and subject to rancidity, giving them a short shelflife. But, technical teams are rapidly meeting those challenges and have had results promising enough to anticipate launch of marketable DHA/EPA-rich canola oil by 2018.
“Cargill has assured supply through compensation for drought, late-planting, seasonal disturbances, etc., through a variety of supply-chain activities, such as contract growing, shipping, handling, streamlining and breadth of supply-chain strategies,” notes Debonte.
While genetically modified ingredients are fast becoming anathema, it must be recognized that the environmental impact on marine life has already been seriously impacted by the explosive demand for DHA and EPA. Moreover, to ensure that the plant DHA and EPA developed using the new seed technology is safe for human consumption, Cargill will conduct the necessary assessments to demonstrate GRAS status prior to commercialization.
Check out the July 2020 issue of Prepared Foods, featuring our cover story on the critical formulation roles of flours and starches, the hot beverages market, new chocolates and candies hitting the shelves, and much more.