How consumers trends are affecting fats, oils selection
Sustainability, clean label and pantry friendly are affecting suppliers.

KANSAS CITY — Food and beverage manufacturers are receiving mixed messages when it comes to the types of fats and oils used to formulate products. Health advocates continue to promote an approach that limits the consumption of saturated fats. Yet news stories during the past year have promoted the idea that saturated fats may be back, and with such companies as McDonald’s promoting the use of real butter in its Egg McMuffin sandwiches it may appear to be the case. But product developers see a more nuanced situation.

Tom Tiffany, senior technical sales manager for ADM Oils, a business unit of the Archer Daniels Midland Co, Chicago, attributes much of the attention fat is receiving today to trends in the market.

“McDonald’s decision, I think, is more of a clean label thing,” he said. “It’s related to the whole ‘back to basics’ pattern we have seen in the past few years.”

While clean label may be bringing new life to the market for some saturates, consumer perception continues to remain focused on avoiding them.

The market research titled “FATitudes” and published by Cargill, Minneapolis, highlights consumer perception on the topic.

“We know from FATitudes that 67% of consumers are checking for saturated fat in the products they buy,” said Mark Christiansen, managing director of Cargill Global Edible Oil Solutions – Global Specialties. “About 50% of all consumers are likely to purchase a product with a ‘no saturate’ claim.”

The results of Cargill’s market research are supported by data published this past May in the International Food Information Council’s Food and Health survey. The data showed 39% of consumers said they were trying to eliminate or avoid fats, and 8% of consumers said they were trying to consume more. Forty-four per cent of survey respondents said they were specifically trying to avoid saturated fats and 3% said they were trying to consume more.

Tapping into trends

Mr. Tiffany said consumer concern about saturated fats has waxed and waned since 2002.

“When trans fat labeling came out, the industry was focused on removing trans fats from products, and they would also work to minimize any increase in saturates,” he said. “The industry was trying to achieve zero trans and maintain some type of functionality.

“Perception of saturates is a mixed bag. There is a dichotomy in the academic world about whether they are good or bad. But then you have a group like the American Heart Association who make recommendations around the topic that affects perception as well.”

Such trends as clean label and sustainability also play a role, said Mr. Tiffany.

“It’s such a diverse topic,” he said. “We are seeing companies that are only using palm oil, because of its association with sustainability. Then you have customers who are using blends with varying degrees of saturates. The variety of issues, whether it is clean label, sustainable or pantry friendly, can make it really challenging for a supplier.”

Adding complexity to the challenge is demand for ingredients sourced from non-genetically modified or organic raw materials.

“These are issues that come into play and affect nutrition, shelf life and even the integrity of the supply chain,” Mr. Tiffany said. “ADM has a very large portfolio of oils and fats. It allows us to tailor a blend if a customer wants to achieve a certain level of saturation. We’ve adapted to what our customer’s needs are.”

Innovative adaptation, diversification

Cargill has adapted as well. Using starches, vegetable waxes and emulsions, researchers with the company have created fat systems that lower saturated fat by as much as 40% in shortenings, without compromising finished product attributes, the company said. Cargill researchers presented three such approaches to reducing saturated fat in bakery applications during the American Oil Chemists’ Society (A.O.C.S.) annual meeting this past May.

“This research demonstrates a significant leap forward in our understanding of the structure and function of fats throughout the bakery process,” said Serpil Metin, principal scientist with Cargill. “With that knowledge, we are working to unlock new low-fat and reduced-saturated-fat solutions that meet the needs of bakeries and help address the health concerns of consumers.”

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consumers limit saturated fat consumption to less than 10% of daily calories. Historically, many foods relied on solid fat, either in the form of trans fat or saturated fat, for structure and stability.

Noting that food companies have significantly eliminated trans fats, they also have relegated the structuring capacity almost exclusively to saturated fats. Yet, as Cargill’s FATitudes, health concerns also surround saturated fats, sparking interest in developing alternate structuring elements. Developing and commercializing reduced-saturated-fat shortenings that deliver the right combination of functionality, cost and label-friendly ingredients has proven difficult.

The methods highlighted by Cargill at the A.O.C.S. meeting included a starch/oil blend, a method featuring vegetable waxes and monoglycerides, and emulsion systems to dilute saturated fat levels.

Other ingredient companies also are diversifying their product development capabilities. AAK, Malmo, Sweden, completed its acquisition of California Oils Corp., a vegetable oils company in Richmond, Calif., from Mitsubishi Corp., Tokyo, on Aug. 31. California Oils, also known as CalOils, last year had revenues of about SEK 1,350 million ($158 million) and volume of about 110,000 tonnes. The company employs 65 people.

The company’s product line includes a variety of oils, including palm and palm kernel oils, different forms of coconut oil, high-oleic and high-linoleic safflower oils, high-oleic and mid-oleic sunflower oils. The company also specializes in supplying a variety of vegetable oils and their blends to fit customer needs.

With the acquisition of CalOil’s plant in Richmond, AAK now owns four production sites in the United States. The other sites are located in Edison and Port Newark, N.J.; and Louisville, Ky.

“Not only will it strengthen AAK’s presence in a very important market, we will also bring our customer co-development concept to a national level in the United States and Canada,” said Arne Frank, chief executive officer of the AAK Group, when the acquisition was announced in July. “The acquisition will serve as a platform for increased sales of specialty and semi-specialty products within food ingredients and chocolate and confectionery fats.”

Despite the advances companies have made, Mr. Tiffany said there are still challenging categories.

“Confectionery for sure,” he said. “Many of the oils used for coatings tend to be high in saturates, and it can be difficult to lower saturates, from a coating perspective. There are also certain bakery, puff pastry and icing applications that the F.D.A. has identified.”

He added that it will be interesting to see how long customers want such ingredients as butter in formulations focused on getting back to basics.

“Butter is what they are migrating to, but it will be interesting to see what happens if the price of butter climbs,” he said. “Once that happens we may see some of them migrate back to margarine due to cost issues.”