Sticking with PHOs? ‘It could be illegal’

by Jeff Gelski
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When switching away from partially hydro-genated oils, food companies may risk creating an inferior product. Challenging applications may include icings that are too hard to spread or bags of microwave popcorn that are too oily. In the future, sticking with partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) also might pose a risk.

“It could be illegal,” said Gerald McNeill, Ph.D., vice-president of research and development for Loders Croklaan, Channahon, Ill. “Everyone has to focus on it now.”

Finding PHO alternatives became a higher priority last November. The Food and Drug Administration in a Federal Register filing said it tentatively had determined PHOs, the primary dietary source of industrially-produced trans fat, are not Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for any use in food. If the rule is finalized, food manufacturers no longer would be permitted to sell PHOs, either directly or as ingredients in another food product, without prior F.D.A. approval.

“The (proposed rule) really caught a lot of people off guard,” said David Dzisiak, commercial leader for grains and oils for Dow AgroSciences, L.L.C., Indianapolis.

While not questioning the adverse health effects of trans fat, those in the food industry know the functional benefits of PHOs.

“Products made using partial hydrogenation were very forgiving,” said John Jansen, vice-president of regulatory, quality and innovation for Bunge Oils, St. Louis. “They provided a very functional product and wide plasticity at a number of temperature ranges, allowing customers flexibility during production.”

Without PHOs, companies are finding a much narrower working range and less flexibility in challenging products, he said.

“Alternatives to trans products need to be specifically tailored for the application and our customer’s specific equipment,” Mr. Jansen said. “In the case of the F.D.A.-specified products, that means one solution will not meet multiple customers’ needs within the same category such as icings. Each customer will need to find a tailored situation that likely only works specifically for its formula and equipment.”

Industry has progressed in removing trans fat from products. According to the F.D.A., since trans fat content information began appearing in the Nutrition Facts label of foods in 2006, trans fat intake among Americans has dropped to 1 gram per day in 2012 from 4.6 grams per day in 2003.

Data collected by the F.D.A. show food products on the market that still have PHOs fall into two categories. In one category, consumers have alternatives containing lower levels of trans fat. The F.D.A. gave cookies, baked foods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, frozen pies and shortening as examples. In the other category, consumers have limited or no choice of an alternative containing a lower level of trans fat. Ready-to-eat frostings and stick margarines are examples.

No concrete icing

“In icings, PHOs provide the air-holding capacity to achieve specific desired gravities, along with the melting and spreading characteristics that allow icings to be evenly spread on cakes,” said Tom Tiffany, senior technical manager, ADM Oils in Decatur, Ill. “The heat stability enables the icing to remain stable when exposed to a variety of transportation and storage conditions.”

Dr. McNeill said icings sold at retail may require a shelf life of up to 1.5 years. If shelf life fails to reach that duration, consumers may open a tub of icing and find it’s “like a piece of concrete,” Dr. McNeill said.

To replace PHOs and still keep the desired shelf life in icings, formulators may use palm oil along with a liquid vegetable oil such as canola oil or sunflower oil that may keep saturated fat as low as possible, he said.

Roger Daniels, vice-president of research, development and innovation for Stratas Foods, Memphis, said in a PHO-free world, shortenings may be derived from three principal pathways: enzymatically interesterified oils, palm oil and palm oil fractions, and high-oleic oils containing blends.

“Using emulsified shortenings in an icing yields the functional benefits of light and air icings with low specific gravities due to their air entrapment and emulsification properties attributable to appropriately melting triglycerides.” Mr. Daniels said. “In a PHO-free shortening world, the structuring functional properties attributed to a wide array of partially hydrogenated fats achieved melting and crystallization properties, which must now be accomplished via blending strategies utilizing one of the three approaches.”

Palm oil and more

For many applications, palm oil may play a part in current PHO alternative systems while trait-enhanced liquid oils are increasing in number and supply.

“We continue to see an increase in the use of palm oil and combinations of its various fractions as a replacement strategy for PHOs,” said Jeffrey B. Fine, vice-president of customer innovation for AarhusKarlshamn USA. “Palm oil is unique in that it naturally contains a significant amount of solid fat. This makes it a highly functional bakery fat without the need for any hydrogenation. Palm-based fats that are both trans-free and hydro-free are currently available for many food applications.”

Mr. Jansen said, “The quick answer is palm and palm-based products. These products provide solids at room temperature, and zero trans makes them highly desirable in the first phase of mitigation. However, our customers are concerned about saturated fat content and sustainability, so we see many of these solutions as short-term fixes as we move to next generation products over time.”

He said long-term success may come from high stability soy and canola oils blended with palm fractions and enzymatically interesterified.

Partially hydrogenated fats impart structure (body), palatability (mouthfeel), sensory integrity and extended shelf life to finished products, said John Satumba, Ph.D., director of oils research and development for food ingredients for Cargill, Minneapolis.

Cargill has several alternatives in its tool box for PHO replacement, Dr. Satumba said. They include tropical oils (palm, palm kernel, coconut, fractions of palm and palm kernel), high stability oils (oils derived from genetic modification and traditional breeding methods), fully hydrogenated oils, interesterified fats (rearrangement of fatty acids) and physical blends of different oils and fats.

A Trancendim portfolio from Corbion Caravan, Lenexa, Kas., provides fat-structuring systems that deliver a combination of 0 grams of trans fat and reduced saturated fat. The Trancendim range consists of distilled diglycerides used to replace hydrogenated hard-stocks.

DuPont Nutrition & Health offers Grindsted crystallizers that have been shown to increase the rate of crystallization for improved production throughput in food without trans fat. Fats free of trans fat typically have slower crystallization compared to trans-containing fats, according to DuPont Nutrition & Health.

Mr. Fine said he expects industry will continue to see the emergence of trait-enhanced liquid oils such as high-oleic and reduced-linolenic types with reduced amounts of polyunsaturation.

“Slightly longer term we can expect to see the introduction of advanced, selective hydrogenization catalysts, which do not yield trans fat, or perhaps entirely new and novel methods of hydrogenation,” he said.

Avoiding oily popcorn bags

Talk about promotion potential: Popcorn is both a whole grain and a snack.

“It should qualify as a good, healthful snack, but because of the oil systems used, it really could not,” said David Dzisiak, commercial leader for grains and oils for Dow AgroSciences, L.L.C., Indianapolis.

In microwave popcorn, the oil has to be liquid for the popcorn to fry, but formulators do not want the oil wicking through the packaging, Mr. Dzisiak said. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs) may achieve the two tasks, but PHOs harm the healthy image of popcorn because they cause trans fat, he said.

Tom Tiffany, senior technical manager, ADM Oils in Decatur, Ill., said PHOs provide the oxidative stability needed for the extended shelf life of microwave popcorn.

“They also ensure that the fat is wicked through the bag in a controlled manner,” he said. “In addition, PHOs maintain solid profiles over a wide temperature range, preventing oil migration. However, they also have a sharp melting curve that delivers very desirable mouthfeel characteristics.”

Gerald McNeill, Ph.D., vice-president of research and development for Loders Croklaan, Channahon, Ill., said palm oil, which has no trans fat, may not set up before some of it starts soaking into the popcorn bag. Palm oil fractions may set up faster to help alleviate that problem, but some palm fractions are more expensive than others, he said.

Omega-9 fatty acid canola oil from Dow AgroSciences is used in a popcorn brand that qualified for the American Heart Association’s Heart Check Mark. Weaver Popcorn Co., Inc., Van Buren, Ind., collaborated with Dow AgroSciences to make microwave popcorn in the three flavors of butter, extra butter and light butter. The extra butter popcorn has 11 grams of fat, including 2 grams of saturated fat, per bag, which compares to 25 grams of fat, including 12 grams of saturated fat, in a competitor’s product. The oil’s low melting point allows the butter flavor to spread more evenly throughout the whole bag of popcorn, Weaver Popcorn Co. said.

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