The explosion of plant-base meat and dairy analogs has created a paradigm shift in the ways food product developers are considering fats and oils. There’s plenty of innovation around plant-based meat alternatives, especially as they expand beyond burgers, sausages, and poultry into mimics of bacon, pork, and even such specific items as turkey burgers.

Optimizing the texture, flavor, appearance, cooking experience, and other qualities of these and other items to be as close to their animal counterparts as possible to meet increasingly exact consumer expectations has pushed innovation to new levels.

An integral part of this is in the choice of fat ingredients used in formulating plant-based animal product alternatives. For example, in red meat analogs, singular or customized blends of oils, shortenings, flakes, specialty fat fractions, and emulsifiers help create structure, sizzle, juiciness and tenderness, and affect the product’s browning and flavor-release characteristics. For the flavor itself, the blends can be tailored to hit desired savory and umami sensations.

Derived from sources including coconut, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, canola, soybean, and palm, these ingredients improve both the cooking and eating properties described above, plus other functions, such as oil release, in plant-based meat substitute products. Solid fats being employed in these efforts range from bulk oils to 3D particulates and flakes.

These help to form the look and structure of fat pockets in the product matrix, while semi-solid blends of fats and oils are formulated to have the ratios of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids found in actual meat applications. Single-source oils come in coconut, sunflower, canola, and palm and can be used on their own or blended to help provide particular attributes to the finished product or to meet specific nutritional requirements.

Something to consider when it comes to the choice of fat ingredients in plant-based animal product substitutes is the consumer demand for ingredients perceived as “less processed.” To that end, simple blends of familiar oils are used. However, in some formulations, these blends might not provide the desired functionalities. Manufacturers will have to use more processed solutions, produced using interesterification or full hydrogenation.



Increasingly, researchers are exploring ways to develop nutritionally enhanced versions of some of the common oils used in food production and food service. New oils made from canola and soy varieties with enhanced levels of the beneficial long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are good examples. The DHA canola oil produced from the enhanced canola has DHA and EPA levels equivalent to fish oil. It is positioned as an alternative to marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to the long-chain omega-3s, the proprietary oil contains double the amount of alpha-linolenic acid found in conventional canola oil.

The innovation uses genetic breeding technologies to insert genes from microalgae rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids into canola. Food manufacturers can use the oil produced from this enhanced variety of canola to add beneficial omega-3s to foods and beverages without the fishy taste associated with fish oil.

Algal oil itself could see an increase in application. It holds great promise, although it has been subject of a few “false starts” over the past decade. Cost of production remains high, but as the sustainability factor and minimal land use remain attractive, ingredient developers are likely to overcome such hurdles soon. Meanwhile, high-oleic peanut oil recently appeared on the scene and could prove to be a popular option, especially in other peanut products, such as peanut butter and peanut fillings.

An important development in the soybean industry was that of high-oleic soybean oil, which functions as an alternative to trans fats. The oil comes from soybeans that are genetically modified to produce higher amounts of monounsaturated fats, but efforts are underway to develop high-oleic soybeans that are not genetically modified. For example, a non-genetically modified high-oleic trait first discovered by researchers in Missouri is now part of a technology program designed to produce soybeans with this particular trait, reports the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, one of the organizations making the technology possible.

Other research on high-oleic soybean oil investigates new uses for it. The oil, which is neutral in flavor and more resistant to oxidation than regular soy oil, is primarily used in frying and baking applications. A 2020 study found that the oil can replace some of the pork fat in bologna-style sausage, improving the fatty acid profile of the sausage without affecting the quality and organoleptic properties of the sausage.



An alternative fat ingredient was just launched that allows food manufacturers to “dramatically reduce calories” while promising to maintain the flavor and texture of the original food and beverage product. The ingredient recently received additional GRAS approval from the FDA for use in a new set of foods and beverages, including dairy analogs, plant-based protein products, beverages and beverage bases (including coffee- and tea-based beverages), and snack foods (such as corn-based savory snacks, potato chips, and chicken nuggets).

The new fat replacer already has been approved for use in multiple formulations, ranging from baked goods and mixes to frozen dairy and desserts to confections and bars. It also has been approved for peanut and nut butters, spreads and dips, gravies and sauces, grain products, pastas, and frying applications.

Unlike other fat replacers, which are commonly carbohydrate-based, the new fat replacer is produced from oils, specifically non-GMO rapeseed oil, and other common plant oils. The lipids are split into glycerol and fatty acids, then a food-grade propoxyl link is inserted, and the glycerol and fatty acids are recombined to create an alternative fat. The addition of the propoxyl in between the glycerol and fatty acids prevents digestive enzymes from breaking it down, so the body does not completely digest it. It delivers 0.7kcal/g vs. the 9 kcal/g from digestible fats.

The resulting 92% reduction of calories from fat for each unit of fat replaced can cut total calories in a formulation by up to 45%. The new ingredient is trans-fat-free, is supported by more than 60 studies, and can be safely consumed in quantities of up to 150g/day. Most importantly, unlike previous (and infamous) attempts at lipid-based nondigestible fat replacers, it does not produce any gastrointestinal side effects. On food labels, it may appear as “modified plant-based oil.”



Even though manufacturers of fat and oil ingredients have developed an array of successful replacements for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), and solutions that are lower in saturates, that doesn’t mean their work is done. Various techniques and proprietary technologies are ushering in a new wave of both PHO-free and low-saturates options that promise to bring improved functionalities to bakery products. Two types of shortenings illustrate this.

One range of shortenings has come out that was specifically designed to produce PHO-free icings. It performs comparatively to those made with PHOs, and is based on a combination of high-oleic oils and a hard fat source made from soybean and cottonseed oils. A proprietary functional crystallization process is used to control the size of the fat crystals and produce shortenings with longer stability and usability.

Reduced-saturates shortenings made without hydrogenated oils are generating more interest in the food industry. With manufacturers striving to formulate products with less saturated fat and no hydrogenates, these shortenings are formulated from blends of soybean oil and a special selection of emulsifiers processed using the same proprietary functional crystallization process as the PHO-free shortenings. The resulting shortening can produce a workable dough that builds volume in bakery goods and helps them retain moisture.



Oils made from nuts and seeds continue to gain wider use in food and beverage formulations. The functionalities and health benefits of these oils, from almond, walnut, peanut, and sunflower to chia, hemp, flax, and other seeds are well documented. Fats from tree nuts, seeds, and grains also are used in milk and dairy analogs, especially those from high-fat/high-protein nuts such as cashews, coconuts, and walnuts. They can deliver a customizable variety of textures that make them ideal for soft cheese, yogurt, and frozen dessert analogs.

There are a couple of up-and-coming nut oil sources worth noting, as they are specifically being cultivated for greater use in food and beverage development. One is the pili nut, native to the Philippines. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Ethnic Foods, researchers determined that pili nut oil is high in unsaturated fats, particularly oleic acid.

The baru nut is the second new source to appear on the food ingredient radar. Actually a seed from a tree grown in the Brazilian savannah, it too boasts a healthful fatty acid composition.