The pendulum has swung the other way, and fats and oils are not only no longer under a hot light, they’re in the limelight. Manufacturers have been taking advantage of the cachet of healthful oils, especially olive oil, for a while.
Recent years saw this approach stimulate a shift toward incorporating such oils unhesitatingly into formulations. But now there is a growing trend to market products with such favored fats front and center and positioned as a raison d’être for purchase by the consumer.
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This trend began with olive oil, a key component of the Mediterranean Diet codified by Oldways Preservation Trust in the 1980s. But there it more or less stalled. This was, in part, due to a combination of the premium costs of specialty oils and their narrower versatility.
For example, the primary health attribute of these oils is a high level of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA). But the double-bond chemical structure that designates them also makes them more volatile, more susceptible to oxidation, and thus lowers their smoke point. Such oils became more favored in cold formulations (such as dressings and condiments) than in fried or baked foods.
Then, oil technologists began pulling out the stops on developing technology to bring healthier attributes to the oils used in high-heat batch production, and the genie is now out of the cruet. Creating high-MUFA soy and canola oils that also boast stellar performance in fryers and industrial ovens has resulted in an oil boom market for new plant oils and even more new twists on some “old standby” oils.
Specialty soy, canola, and corn oils demonstrate that the leading food oils are able to stay not only relevant but innovative in the face of a flood of new contenders in the landscape of food oils. The development of high-oleic and non-GMO versions of these oils has kept them at the forefront of food oil sales and use.
High-oleic omega-9 canola has been on the market for more than a decade, and the oil has a substantial customer base with companies using it in both the foodservice and food manufacturing sectors. To meet industry and consumer demand, both
conventional and non-GMO omega-9 canola varieties are available.
On the other hand, high oleic soybeans have only been commercial since 2012. Yet acreage for the crop has grown by more than 20-fold. High oleic soybean oil has a substantial customer base in non-dairy creamers and a growing list of uses in food applications ranging from spray oils to the liquid component of shortenings.
High-oleic oils have a unique fatty acid profile that makes them naturally stable. The high-oleic and low-polyunsaturated composition enables longer shelflife, without the need for partial hydrogenation or artificial preservatives. The unique fatty acid profile combining high-oleic and low-linolenic fatty acids provides inherent heat and oxidative stability. The natural stability means you can remove TBHQ/BHT in many applications, allowing for a cleaner label.
These oils have more than double the stability of commodity oils, delivered through extended fry life and longer shelflife depending on the food type. They also have clean, neutral flavor profiles. Both oils deliver a consistent fatty acid profile from crop year to crop year.
Both canola and soy manufacturers have been able to build non-GMO stock, and have also succeeded in raising the health profile of the oils by developing naturally bred high-oleic strains. These combine great performance with non-GMO derived status and are expected to rapidly fill the gap for omega-rich, healthy oils that can be used in virtually any food formulation.
Corn oil, too, has been working to attain more balance when it comes to meeting GMO-free demands. Suppliers are now able to provide processors with non-GMO versions of classic food oils and fats. These often are organic and typically are expeller-pressed and solvent-free. They boast all the versatility and functionality of the old classic but also fold nicely into clean-label trends.
Olive oil, too, remains one of the most widely used oils in food manufacturing but predominantly in dressings, marinades, sauces, and sautéed items. While an excellent oil for baked products, including sweet baked items—the olive is a fruit, after all—this most favored oil still is not widely used in batch manufacturing. This is due to its desirable but distinct flavor, as well as its cost.
Extra virgin olive oil also has a low smoke point (320°F) and shelflife compared to other cooking oils. Virgin and low-acid olive oils have smoke points above 400°F, and olive pomace oil has a reasonably high smoke point of 460°F, making them suitable for high-heat processing. Recently, a number of chip and cracker manufacturers have found the flavor and marketing value of olive oil to be desirable enough to dive in and use it in their products.
Oils from sunflower and safflower seeds are experiencing a revival among product manufacturers. Their allure has as much to do with flavor and performance as with the fact that these crops are non-GMO. Safflower oil has a clean flavor profile that adds versatility.
Sunflower oil has good flavor attributes and high stability, as well as a healthful balance of omega fatty acids. These attributes make it an excellent all-purpose oil for fried products as well as for cold dressings and condiments.
While refined peanut oil has been in common use in the food industry for more than half a century, it has taken a back seat to corn oil, soy oil, and in recent decades, canola oil. However, specialty peanut oils, with their rich peanutty flavor, are ramping up in popularity as the Asian and African cuisines they are such a big part of keep trending forward.
Avocado oil has benefited greatly from a combination of the growing abundance of avocados in the US in the years and an influx from south of the border since 1997, when an 83-year ban on imports of the fruit from Mexico was lifted. The oil also has an incredible nutrition profile that covers a spectrum of beneficial omegas. And, with a make-up similar to olive oil, it also has a portion of the healthful forms of saturated fats.
Avocado oil’s flavor—typically described as rich and buttery—makes it excellent for dressings, refrigerated sauces, and condiments. In fact, nearly every mayonnaise and salad dressing maker has launched an avocado oil version of their product in the past few years. The liquid oil also one of the highest smoke points of any plant oil (520°F).
Snack companies, especially chip makers, have taken advantage of this impressive profile and not only use the oil in making their products but highlight it as an attractive point of difference in the marketing.
Rice bran oil has yet to take off in the US, but several attributes are causing processors to take notice. Sales growth of this oil has been slow but steady for the past decade. One attractive advantage is the oil’s long shelflife, thanks to its high amounts of vitamin E, especially the tocotrienol form (with a much higher antioxidant capacity than the more common tocopherol form).
Rice bran oil also has quite a high smoke point, at 490°F. However, while it also boasts a light and clean flavor profile, it still is pricier than soy, canola, corn, and other mainstream grain and seed oils.
On the tocotrienol front, red palm oil is hard to beat. As one of the richest sources of this highly beneficial lipid, red palm oil is easily one of the healthiest oils around. It’s been commonly used in Africa and Southeast Asia for many years, but palm oil in general has suffered controversy.
Palm oil is on track to supersede most of the food oils in the global market. According to a report published last summer in Deutsche Welle, annual palm oil production shot up from about 1 million tons in 1970 to around 63 million tons in 2016.
Sustainability and ecological issues are the main hurdles with Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil providers. Monoculturing that has endangered native species and inadequate monitoring of adherence to environmentally sound practices have brought considerable negative publicity to producers from this region.
This palm oil story is different, however, when it comes to most product sourced from South America and Africa. Palm oil is one of the most widely used food oils in the world. It is prized for its versatility, particularly in baked products, due to its saturated fat content. While saturated fats once had a bad rap, health-wise, it has been discovered that the saturated fats in unrefined palm oil (and other tropical oils) actually confer health benefits without increasing health risks.
The Palm Done Right collective is an international effort to ensure that palm oil is grown, farmed, produced, and processed organically, sustainably, and in a manner where “animal habitats and rain forests are preserved, where farmers are empowered, where communities thrive, and the environment is nurtured.”
The collective’s efforts extend to the refining process, working with manufacturers to produce a refined, neutral oil that has been bleached and deodorized (RBD) to shed its distinctive color and flavor. According to the collective, “When oil is refined at too high a temperature, it can create toxic 3-monochloropropanediol fatty acid esters (3-MCPD). But when palm oil is carefully refined at lower temperatures, using gentler methods, 3-MCPD levels are significantly lower (and well below risk).”
The liquid form of palm oil, palm olein, ends up with a high smoke point and greater stability. The solid form, palm stearin, is highly prized as a non-hydrogenated, vegetarian option for spreads and confections. It also can be blended with nut butters to prevent fat separation.
Another South American source for high-omega, healthy oil is the chia plant. One of the main food oils in Chile and other parts of South America, chia oil has made strong inroads in the US. The faint nutty taste makes it suitable for non-cooked applications, but it also adds depth to the flavor of margarines and other spreads.
Chia oil has one of the highest levels of the plant-derived omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid. Yet it also has high amounts of vitamin E (mostly in the tocopherol form but some tocotrienol as well), making it a surprisingly stable oil. This makes it ideal for shelf-stable and refrigerated products.
With the surge of coconut water and coconut milk analogs hitting the market, coconut oil was bound to become an increasingly popular and available commodity. And in the past couple of years, the promotion of medium-chain triglycerides for health has given it another boost.
Coconut oil, like other palm oils, also provides a great shortening-like fat well-suited for baking products. And while flavor issues can be a hurdle for some oils, for certain pastries, cookies, confections, and other sweet products, a hint of coconut flavor can be a plus.
A recent entry to the market is processed liquid organic coconut oil for frying and baking. Solvent-free separation methods are used to remove most of the saturated fats from pure coconut oil. The high-unsaturated part that remains is clear and stays liquid throughout its shelflife. The coconut flavor that lingers is somewhat lighter and the price compares to that of extra virgin olive oil.
A recent entry to the market is solvent-free, processed liquid organic coconut oil.
Nut oils have long been favorites in dressings and other products where cooking is not required. The attraction of nut oils is the flavor as much as the health benefits, and high heat alters the delicate flavor of, for example, walnut oil. Almond oil, however, is experiencing a sudden jump in popularity as a cooking oil in food processing. Almond oil is reported as having a “clean, mild flavor and a subtle, sweet aroma.”
For food manufacturers, the oil is positioned as both a functional ingredient targeting consumer interest in healthful oils and a versatile oil that blends well with other oils and remains liquid even when refrigerated. It’s being promoted as an excellent novel oil for dressings, marinades, and bakery applications.
Almond oil also has a 470°F smoke point. This has attracted makers of chips and other high-heat snacks. One example comes from Kettle Foods Co. The international maker of potato chips and tortilla chips recently launched a line of chips fried in almond oil. The fact is prominently displayed on the package, complete with an almond graphic, showing the value these oils have to consumers in today’s marketplace.
Among nut oils, another one to watch is macadamia nut oil. While macadamia crops in two of the major source countries, Australia and South Africa, took a hard hit due to a string of unfortunate weather incidents, this bad year followed a steady climb in production and use of macadamias in general. But most of all, this nut with a high oil yield is at once high in MUFAs (80%) and has a comparatively high smoke point as well, nearly 400°F.
Hemp oil has been fluttering at the fringes for about a decade now, but has never really taken off. This is mostly due to the regulatory hurdles it faces as a relative of cannabis. When strict importation and agriculture rules hamper a crop, the impetus to develop the technology that makes best and most efficient use of that crop also is hobbled.
Processing hemp seed for oil is still comparatively costly, and as with similar seed oils, its high-omega health profile also gives it a short shelflife. But with the big boom in cannabis and its relations, hemp oil could be worth keeping an eye on as a potential trend. Other seed oils, such as pumpkin seed oil, watermelon seed oil, and even mango seed oil are in a good position to enter the market as well.
These plants already are popular for their fruit, extracted proteins, and other components, so it’s only a short step for processors to extract the full measure of their value. While no one of them would likely see sales big enough to threaten the major oil seed sources, they could make an impression on consumers and be a key marketing point for envelope-pushing processors.
And then there’s algae oil. Unlike some of the other plant oils emerging in the food industry, algae oil does have the potential to give the big guys a run for their money. After a few bumpy starts, one manufacturer has successfully reintroduced algae oil into the retail market. Although production levels are still in the start-up phase, the benefits of this oil source make it hard to hold back.
Algae oil, a high-omega 9 oil with a high smoke point (480°F), can be produced in controlled, closed systems that can be sited anywhere and require far less space, water, and energy than vast fields of seed oil crops.
The ability to manipulate growth and processing of algae for levels of protein as well as the lipid profile of the omegas (3s, 6s, and 9s), combined with a non-solvent extraction that preserves integrity and health benefits of the oil throughout the RBD process, makes for an ultra-clean-tasting, clear oil suitable for all food applications.
Algae lipid powder recently appeared on the food scene as an excellent plant-based replacement for whole eggs in baked products. With its neutral flavor, it also has been used to replace a significant portion of the fat in ice cream products that maintain the rich mouthfeel and slow-churned texture of full-fat ice cream. But many powdered oils (like algae oil) also can act as replacements for significant amounts of liquid fat in baked products. Use of powdered oils can help alleviate storage issues, transport costs, and, as part of a pre-mix, consistency and quality control in a formulation. With spray drying and encapsulation technology now in common use, processors might want to investigate if this form of fat is a suitable option for their needs.
Crafting a product with an “oils forward” approach to formulation where, rather than being an incidental ingredient, the oil is a featured cast member was a top priority for Susan O’Brien, founder of Hail Merry Foods LLC. “Good fats are indeed a major star of the show in all our products, helping to elevate the experience of our other staple ingredients, like organic maple syrup, fair-trade dark cocoa, and sweet almond flour.”
The Hail Merry team focuses on fat as a carrier of flavor, and O’Brien and her team craft their products in the manner of a “French chef building a sauce.” O’Brien adds, “The Hail Merry ethos is deeply rooted in celebrating plant-based dietary fats, whether it’s the luxurious mouthfeel they offer, the heart-healthy benefits, or for serving as energizing and metabolizing fuel for the body.”
Indulgent snacking, insists O’Brien, “can and should offer benefits beyond just the emotional experience we get from sinking our teeth into something sweet, creamy, and luxurious. It should also highlight, when possible, the science around the health benefits of using [lipid-based] ingredients like dark cocoa, nuts, and nut flours, as well as medium-chain fats, like those found in virgin coconut oil.”
As a gluten-free and vegan brand, Hail Merry chose coconut oil for its primary fat. “Coconut oil performs very much like heavy cream in our recipes,” explains Hail Merry partner and food scientist Alison Brushaber.
While the team encountered a number of challenges in bringing products to market and keeping them fresh at the shelf, its biggest technical hurdle was to manage the temperature sensitivity of coconut oil, which starts to melt at 76°F. The partners opted for cold-chain distribution rather than use another oil format.
While plant oils are gushing like Spindletop into the food scene, there’s no slowing down for butter, lard, and other animal-sourced oils. They remain as popular as ever in dining venues and home cooking, as well as in many prepared foods. Enter Cornhusker Kitchen LLC’s duck fat in a spray can. With a surprisingly clean flavor that does add that hint of canard to a sautéed food item, duck fat spray might not be ready for industrial use, but it is an excellent indication that today’s consumers are fearlessly embracing the flavor and mouthfeel that can only come from fine fats and oils.
Originally appeared in the May, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Oil Portrait.