Switching to Healthier Oils and Fats Takes Precedence
Many processors are switching to recently developed high-oleic versions of popular and inexpensive oils and shortenings
Vegetable oils still lead the field over animal-based fats when it comes to new food oil developments. Perceived as healthier in that they contain more unsaturated fatty acids, they have faced challenges when it comes to cooking or baking, as they are not normally robust at the high temperatures needed in heat processing.
The drive to delete trans-fats from the American diet led to big changes in the industry. Among the most commonly used oils in the prepared foods industry, soybean oil, palm oil, and canola oil rank in the majority. Many processors are now switching to recently developed high-oleic versions of these popular and inexpensive oils and shortenings. These produce the fewest textural changes in baked products such as cakes and cookies, compared to a range of alternatives including partially hydrogenated oils and conventional oils.
High-oleic (omega-9) soybeans and canola have been at the forefront of the shift in this edible oil technology. (High-oleic versions of peanut oil have also recently become available.) High-oleic soybean oil is a stable, monounsaturated fat-rich oil with natural tocopherols. It was developed for use in food applications where oxidative, shelf-life, and flavor stabilities are desired.
High-oleic soybean shortening is produced by enzymatically interesterifying high-oleic soybean oil with fully hydrogenated soybean oil. In baking, it is designed as a drop-in product providing functionality with zero trans-fats and offers substantial flexibility, meaning it can be tailored to aid product development in cakes, cookies, pies, flaked or laminated doughs, donuts, puff pastries, and icings. This flexibility in desired specification and a wider range of working temperatures boost the ease-of-use of these shortenings.
High-oleic canola oil is another naturally improved food oil. Suitable for deep-frying and high-heat shallow frying, it is derived from canola seeds modified to have an extremely low content (<0.1%) of erucic acid (a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid), with 61% oleic acid and 9%-11% alpha-linolenic acid.
Such refined vegetable oils are better placed as cooking oils, due to their higher smoke points and greater stability. High-oleic soybean oil has one of the highest Oxidative Stability Index (OSI) levels of any liquid oil, which makes it especially well-suited to deep-frying without the need for extra antioxidants. This means it offers longer performance and usage time in fryers without breaking down, as well as reduced clean-up time.
With fewer oil changes and less oil wastage, these oils offer greater production efficiency and increased worker safety. Furthermore, their neutral flavor means these oils can be used even for delicately flavored foods.
Palm oil is one of the most popular food oils on the planet. Around 90% of all oil extracted from the flesh of tropical palm fruits is used in food processing versus other industries, and due to its high functionality, palm oil is particularly favored by the global baking industry. Palm-based fats have excellent utility in bakery, a key reason why palm represents about 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production.
Recently, palm oil has also been among the most controversial oils due to ecological and sustainability concerns. Leading suppliers of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia have begun to recognize the need to address these consumer concerns and take steps to mitigate the effects of monoculturing and habitat destruction that fostered them.
Many consumers distrust palm oil based on concerns over these issues, so palm-free products are beginning to grow in popularity. However, sustainable, eco-friendly, and socially responsible palm oil from sources in Africa and South America has been striving these past few years to step in as a favored replacement since bakery applications can require an oil (such as palm oil) that becomes solid at room temperature. Shea fats, too, are showing promise in delivering on such critical functionality points.
While cold-pressed green extra virgin olive oil from the fruits and seeds of olive trees is rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin A, it also contains monounsaturated omega-9 oleic acid (at 55%-83%), palmitic, and stearic acids, as well as natural antioxidants.
However, it also has a lower smoke point — 350°F-400°F — than refined oils, so developers of high-heat formulations have shied away from its use in batch production. It can also be more expensive than some alternatives. Still, the cachet of olive oil is such that an increasing number of companies that make fried products are opting to use it.
Extra virgin avocado oils also are highly popular, especially on the heels of the recent surge in demand for avocado fruit. Extra virgin oil from the Hass cultivar has a characteristic flavor, high monounsaturated fatty acids, and nearly 70% oleic acid content. With a higher smoke point (480°F), it is better for frying. It is extracted from the fruit pulp in a process not exceeding temperatures of 125°F, thus retaining the vitamins, minerals, and a brilliant green color, which represents its content of chlorophylls and carotenoids.
The nutritional profile of avocado oil is similar to that of olive oil. So, too, is that of grapeseed oil. An excellent example of the power of “upcycling,” grapeseed oil has moved rapidly into the mainstream in recent years as a substitute for olive oil. In addition to the similar nutritional benefits in its make-up, it also has a high smoke point (420°F), allowing its use in frying.
Sunflower oil also has been on a sharp upward trend. In its unrefined form, its unique flavor has made it attractive to makers of dressings and dipping sauces, while its 450°F smoke point makes it appealing to makers of chips, crackers, and flatbreads who are seeking its sunny marketing advantages.
STRUCTURE FOR FUNCTION
Technologies for developing reduced-fat or “diet” packaged food products are generating more aggressive interest in edible oils and fats, with many improvements and benefits. Structured fats are a cutting-edge example.
Structurally modified triacylglycerols are lipid compounds that either have new fatty acids incorporated within them or a change in position for the existing fatty acids. They are being developed for the purpose of resisting digestion and metabolism, allowing them to mimic the organoleptic characteristics of traditional fats without the caloric impact.
Earlier this year, the company behind the fat component in reduced-fat chocolate line Sweet Nothings, HealthSmart Foods, Inc., was awarded an $8.3M venture capital funding boost from HG Ventures. The ingredient is a novel restructured rapeseed (canola) oil-based fat replacer. The new fat received GRAS approval “without question.”
Launched a few years ago, the fat used in the Sweet Nothings line is backed by 60 scientific studies supporting its safety. Its key benefits involve delivering the same taste, texture, mouthfeel, and satiety found in a standard chocolate product, but with 67% fewer calories overall and 92% fewer calories than standard products for each unit of fat replaced.
On the nutrition panels, this equates to reducing fat from 9kcals/g down to 0.7kcals/g for this patent-protected, neutral-flavor ingredient. The target market is consumers who are concerned about their weight. It has a slightly higher melting point (102°F) than cocoa butter and is typically used in combination with another fat ingredient. It is available in two formats, one for spreadable use and one for confectionery products.
The ingredient’s melt profile makes it particularly suitable for enrobed confectionery and similar applications, while the spreadable version allows for cooking and baking applications involving a prolonged exposure to high temperatures. Its oxidative and hydrolytic stability are on par with commercial frying or baking fats. The new fat also has high stability, with an OSI of 100 hours. As such, it is particularly suited to applications like frozen desserts, nut butters, sauces, spreads, and frostings.
CLEAN AND FREE
Clean-label solutions offered by naturally emulsified fats are predicted to have a far-reaching impact in the coming years, with such ingredients increasingly finding use in applications such as whipped cream analogs, non-dairy ice cream, dairy-free coffee creamers, and others. Clean-label lipid-based ingredients also can also be used to craft products targeting consumers who are on specialized or restricted diets, or those seeking kosher or halal products.
Nut oils are another growth sector, with peanut oils allowing clean-label, non-GMO, non-trans-fat formulations which, if the oils are highly refined, can also be allergen-free. Increased domestic demand is stimulating peanut oil consumption, which has recently seen companies invest in expanding production, storage, and processing capacity within the US, while additionally acquiring operations outside its borders.
The use of peanut oil in food processing has been largely limited to refined peanut oil, mostly due to its high (450°F) smoke point. However, unrefined and roasted peanut oils are growing in popularity because of their rich flavors and healthful nutrient profiles.
Recently, green peanut oil debuted and is gaining attention for its clean flavor notes. It also has a high smoke point of 400°F. Peanut oil has a smaller market share compared to the other oilseed products, which is a reflection of peanuts being grown in the US mostly for the whole kernel and for producing peanut butter.
High omega-3 (as alpha-linoleic acid) walnut oil has enjoyed popularity for years, but now pumpkin seed oil and sesame seed oils are also on a healthy growth curve. Their popularity is being driven by their impressive nutritional profiles and distinctive flavors, as well as their use in global cuisines.
Two other oils that are well-positioned to leverage health and traditional benefits and gain popularity among product developers are annatto and red palm. The former is a staple of Mexican and Central/South American cooking; the latter is associated with the cuisines of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Unlike white palm oil, made from palm kernels, unrefined red palm oil is made from the red palm fruit. It and annatto are counted as the best sources of the super-antioxidant form of vitamin E, the tocotrienols.
Cold-pressed specialty oil trends parallel the increasing interest in clean-label, vegan, and “free-from” products. Research and Markets reports an expected 10% yearly growth in the plant-based omega-3 ingredients markets to 2022, which is primarily based on dietary supplements but also includes food and beverages.
This is a market traditionally dominated by fish- and marine-based sources of omega 3. Much of the recent interest derives from the consumption of algal ingredients the fish themselves eat, but also from other plant sources, such as chia, flaxseed, hemp, and walnuts. Chia seed oil and cold-pressed hemp seed oil have both benefited from increased scientific evidence of their benefits and healthful composition.
Other oils flowing into the mainstream of food production are rice bran oil and coconut oil. Rice bran oil is another great source of tocotrienols, and coconut oil is currently touted for its complement of medium-chain triglycerides. These fat fractions have been studied for a number of health benefits and that attention is adding to attraction among consumers for all things coconut. However, unrefined coconut oil has a low smoke point, so it is more applicable in low-heat processing or for use as a flavor element.
Demand is accelerating for plant-based foods, especially to replace meat and dairy products for those consumers seeking vegan options. Composed of more than 400 unique fatty acids, milk fat is one of the most complex and singular natural fats, and thus is difficult to replace.
In chocolate products, milk fat serves as a bloom inhibitor and contributes significantly to the expected flavor profile. Specialists now provide functional ranges of vegetable-derived fats and oils to replace milk fats, within applications such as non-dairy creamers and plant-based milks.
Some plant-based butters on the market lack natural formulations, and some do not produce stable emulsions under heat, which can limit their use. A steam-refined product based on pure coconut oil and three other natural ingredients to remove the coconut flavor can be used 1:1 as a replacement for butter and offering increased flexibility and functional benefits for shorter shelf-life products in baking.
Similar ingredients are available to replace beef tallow in meat-replacement products and ready meals. A huge technical challenge in plant-based meats is the consumer preference for marbled intra-muscular fat distributed through the meat, which contributes greatly to its flavor and juiciness when eaten.
Ingredient producers have risen to this challenge, with examples including shea fats and their fractions now being utilized in bakery and plant-based meat products. Impossible Foods’ new plant-based pork formulation was launched in January 2020 as another variant, including the company’s soy-based leghemoglobin to mimic the blood in meat, and containing soy protein formulated with coconut and sunflower oils.
In baking, natural plant-based emulsified fats that act like butter are showing great promise, particularly for dairy-free desserts. A natural 65% fat emulsion based on coconut oil, with only four ingredients in total, has a lower melting point (78°F) than dairy butter. Its target applications include sauces, creams, and cookies.
Able to retain the functionality of butter even under heat, this product allows a buttery mouthfeel in dairy-free products, as opposed to the more commonly associated waxy aftertaste of many butter analogs. Due to the nature of the coconut fat, making laminated doughs could perhaps present a challenge in a hot kitchen environment, but it does have the benefit of requiring a shorter chill time before baking.
All this is not to rule out highly stable animal fats. Previously shunned, traditional animal fats are re-emerging within US food culture and represent go-to fats for those following the popular “keto” diet. Natural lard, duck fat, goose fat, schmaltz, and other solid animal fats are following beef tallow’s rise in popularity. In formulations, they are known to excel for deep frying and baking compared to fats that can only achieve solid form through hydrogenation.
As new formulations are created and old standbys find new favor, product developers have access to a variety of potential solutions to suit individual consumer tastes. Consumers are slowly learning that oils and fats are not “bad,” reducing the stigma previously associated with lipid ingredients and opening the door to increased product opportunities.
Deborah Cross, PhD, is a consultant and the Director of ForEden Solutions, Ltd. She also is the Managing Consultant for CPL Business Consultants, Ltd., a food ingredients specialist business consulting company based near Oxford in the United Kingdom. Trained in monogastric animal nutrition and microbiology, Cross has worked analytically throughout her career as a commercial technical nutritionist, a global analyst, and in technically focused business intelligence for the food and feed industries. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In North America, the use of oils and fats used in food and beverage applications was estimated at 18M tons in 2018 by Fortune Business Insights. The research group forecast expected growth in the category at a healthy 3.3% CAGR, estimated to reach 23M tons by 2026. The growth is largely related to the increased use of oils and fats for packaged food products, with the primary oils used being derived mainly from soy, canola, palm, and olive sources. The availability of versatile oils produced from soybeans in the US — the world’s largest soybean producer — led Fortune Business Insights to predict that soybean oil could represent as much as 50% of North America’s entire oils and fats market by 2026.