The shortening conundrum

by Kirk O'Donnell
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What’s a baker to do? Our industry makes many products with relatively high levels of fats and oils in them. And these items — donuts, cookies, pies, pastries and cakes — as tasty as they are, often get characterized by consumers as fattening and unhealthy.

Past efforts to make such products with low levels of fats and oils have not been successful. In my opinion, life without these tasty baked goods is not worth living. There is no reason such foods cannot be eaten in moderation with a sufficient balance between caloric intake and exercise. And that brings us to the matter of health, dietary patterns and the role of fats in these matters as well as acting as shortenings for bakery foods.

By the numbers

In the US, the increasing problem of obesity drives pressure to avoid foods with higher levels of fats. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 34.9% of the US population, or 78.6 million people, are obese. The estimated annual medical costs stemming from this epidemic are $147 billion. Of particular concern is childhood obesity, and according to CDC, 17% of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese. Obesity is linked to the increased prevalence of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, stroke and some cancers. According to a 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination survey, only 42% of children ages 6 to 11 get 60 minutes of physical activity per day, and this drops to 8% for ages 12 to 15.
In addition to obesity, there are concerns about trans fats and saturated fats in foods. Trans fats raise levels in the bloodstream of low-density lipoproteins (LDL, a.k.a. “bad” cholesterol) and reduce high-density lipoproteins (HDL, or “good” cholesterol). This leads to increased risks of heart disease and has also been linked to diabetes.
According to the United Soybean Board’s 2015 study of consumer attitudes about nutrition, trans fat is considered unhealthy by 70% of those surveyed. The study also reported that 75% of consumers are interested in the type of fats and oils used in restaurants.
The baking industry has listed the amount of trans fats on product labels since 1999, but this was not formally required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until 2006.
Eating more saturated fats is generally thought to increase LDL cholesterol, although there is science that disputes this contention. The American Heart Association recommended that only 5 to 6% of calories come from saturated fat. In other words, with a 2,000-Cal-per-day diet, no more than 120 Cal should come from saturated fats. Because the caloric value of fat is 9 per g, that recommendation comes to only 13 g (about ½ oz) of saturated fats a day. Looking at the most commonly used sources of fats in the baking industry, the percentages of saturated fats are 7% in olive oil, 8% in canola oil, 15% in soybean oil, 48% in palm oil and 87% in coconut oil.

On June 16, 2015, FDA announced that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) will no longer be considered generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Food manufacturers were given three years to comply with this new regulation. The decision to remove PHOs from the GRAS list was made after FDA reviewed more than 6,000 comments made since public input was requested in 2013. With its announcement, FDA acknowledged the good work of the food industry, estimating that the use of trans fats has declined 80% since 2003.

Changing shortenings

Producers of bakery shortenings have been quick to respond to these challenges. During the past 15 years, shortening suppliers countered pressures to reduce trans fats, and by 2005, the transition to trans-fat-free shortenings acquired remarkable momentum. In 2015, the switch is nearly complete.
Development of trans-fat-free bakery shortenings was accomplished through replacing the base stock with palm oil, by using enzyme and chemical interesterification, and through blending selected other oils. According to Roger Daniels, vice-president, research, development and innovation with Stratas Foods, Memphis, TN, “The research and development focus was successful in helping the US food industry drive down the average trans fat consumption level from 4.6 g per day to about 1.0 g per day.”
Here’s how they did it. Consider the use of palm oil. The stability provided by palm oil’s fatty acid profile helps resist rancidity — a function previously provided by the solid fats in PHOs, most of which are trans fats. Interesterification also boosts the stability of oils by shuffling the three fatty acids that form the triglyceride oil molecules. And blending allows the shortening processor to mix and match stability and function by selection of base oils.

Interestingly enough, by reducing trans fat through use of palm oil, the amount of saturated fat was increased, reflecting the fact that palm oil is higher in saturated fat than soybean and cottonseed oil. To maintain the same level of saturated fat in the trans-fat-free shortening compared with the trans-fat-containing predecessors, bakers had to learn to work with much softer shortenings. This fact also reduced process tolerance for bakers, making temperature control and cooling time even more critical.

The fate of all-purpose

With PHOs stripped of their GRAS status, all-purpose shortening may become an endangered species. According to Bob Johnson, director of R&D with Bunge Oils, St. Louis, “With the phasing out of trans-fatty acid-containing shortening and now the elimination of PHO shortenings, the days of all-purpose shortening working for a broad range of products has passed, and the industry has developed products specifically for different applications.”
Many other suppliers echoed the notion that the use of bakery shortenings will become more specialized. On the other hand, it is possible to produce non-PHO all-purpose shortening using palm oil, interesterified (IE) shortening and blends of liquid oils and fully hydrogenated oils. Some suppliers mentioned that no changes will be necessary in their existing all-purpose shortenings.

As PHOs fade from the scene, they leave bakery formulators with a dilemma. “The fact that PHOs have now been removed from GRAS status means that those who have been hold-outs from reformulation must truly look for and change to other shortenings and oils,” noted Lynne Morehart, oils and shortenings principal scientist with Cargill, Wayzata, MN.

Going PHO-free

Fortunately, none of the persons interviewed for this story expressed panic over the removal of PHOs from GRAS status. According to Monica Zelaya-Brown, customer innovation manager with AAK, Edison, NJ, “We believe the industry will continue to see a greater use of palm oil as consumers seek cleaner and healthier labels.”
Availability is a key benefit, noted Tonya Lofgren, sales and marketing coordinator, Ciranda, Inc., Hudson, WI. “Palm oil will become a primary source of oil for shortening blends, prompting a focus on sustainable sourcing and corporate accountability,” she said.
So is the accommodation of bakery needs, according to Mr. Daniels. “Our goal in the research and development side of the industry is on achieving products with the desired attributes of customers,” he said. “These are smooth, creamy, with more pliable consistencies that rival soybean-based products from the past; products that are easy to work with throughout the process of creating cakes and icings; the desired whiter appearance; a wide-working functional range based on product temperature; a consistent texture from cube-to-cube and from lot-to-lot and products with the desired textural properties that can be maintained over a longer portion of the declared shelf life.”
Ms. Morehart pointed out that consumer education will be needed to promote understanding of the difference between PHOs, which contain trans fat, and fully hydrogenated oils, which do not.
There was also some mention of increased use of animal fats such as butter in some applications, but this is not expected to be widespread. Still, the search continues. “There is an interest in finding alternative sources of label-friendly antioxidants, and this trend will likely increase,” said Sheila Rice, regional product management, emulsifiers, DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, KS.
Bakers often are concerned about a healthy shortening not being able to run through the production system and, therefore, are reluctant to run plant trials. However, Mr. Daniels mentioned that Stratas routinely experiences on-site conversions of customers from doubting to believing.

Ms. Morehart reported that Cargill has helped more than 300 manufacturers move away from PHOs without sacrificing quality since 2011.

Progress now and later

Looking to the future, solutions vary depending on the supplier. For example, AAK mentioned value-added solutions using palm, coconut and other specialized fats and oils to meet customer goals. Stratas Foods noted improving enzymatically IE shortenings to achieve the functional crystallization “sweet spot” sooner. Another option cited by Stratas was customized solutions.
According to Rick Cummisford, quality director, Columbus Vegetable Oils, Des Plaines, IL, “In 2001, our company had about 12 shortening products; now there have been over 70 developed, with many of these in use today. Much of this is due to the shift away from PHO shortenings.”
Mr. Johnson reported that Bunge Oils will continue to use enzyme interesterification, palm oils and high-stability oil blends. Additionally, the company plans to “explore new oil sources and new technologies to make shortenings with minimal saturates,” he added.

Looking further out, Cargill and BASF Plant Sciences are involved in a project to develop canola, a form of rapeseed, into a plant whose seeds’ oil will contain the omega-3 eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) fatty acids. The idea is to gain the nutritional value of fish oil but from a plant source. Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, is involved in a similar effort.

Bakery considerations

Shortening suppliers generally think that there have been more changes and challenges in the past 15 years than will most likely occur over the next 15 years. Specific areas of concern include emerging studies on ideal diets and the role of fats and oils, food safety and security, greater scrutiny of GRAS status for other food components, labeling on IE fats and oils, definition of natural, regulations regarding genetically modified (GMO) products, sustainability and increased focus on “good” fats and oils.
There is also some concern about shelf life issues. Generally speaking, bakers have always wanted longer and longer shelf life on their products. With the increased focus on wellness and cleaner labels, there may be reductions in the targeted shelf life of some products. This could pose some difficulties in the supply chain.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge is not in the formulation of baked foods and snacks or even in altering the composition of shortenings. Instead, it will be a push to change consumer behavior to get people to increase their physical activity, especially among younger age groups. If the US does not reduce its rising rate of obesity, then the baking industry will come under increasing pressure to reduce fats and oils in our products.
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