The “health and wellness” platform in the food industry continues to maintain its front-and-center position. First lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move obesity campaign and the recently passed health care reform bill ensure that what we eat and how it affects our health remain a top-of-mind concern and front page news.

Food formulators have worked diligently during the past decade to rid their products of trans fat, but in many cases, the solution to removing trans fat increased saturated fat content in products. However, other product development solutions exist that target health and wellness by eliminating trans fats and dramatically reducing saturated fat.

Most people are familiar with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are types of polyunsaturated fats. These are essential fatty acids because they cannot be manufactured by the body. As a result, people must obtain omega-3 fatty acids from foods such as fish-, nut- and plant-based oil. Omega-6 fatty acids are obtained by consuming meat, poultry and eggs as well as nut- and plant–based oils.

BRED FOR STABILITY. Omega-9 oils are a family of fatty acids found in various plant sources. Canola, sunflower, olive and nut oils have significant levels of omega-9 fatty acids, which are also known as high-oleic acids or monounsaturated fats. Omega-9 canola and sunflower oils are exceptionally high in omega-9 fatty acids with greater than 70%. These oils have emerged as healthier options to replace commonly used partially hydrogenated shortenings, which can contain high levels of trans and saturated fats.

In the mid-1990s, Dow AgroSciences LLC, Indianapolis, IN, developed Nexera seeds, an innovative, new line of canola and sunflower seeds that were naturally bred for high stability, without the need for hydrogenation. Omega-9 oils are readily available to meet the growing demand of the food service and food manufacturing industries. Dow AgroSciences doubled capacity in 2008 to more than a billion pounds and plans to double again by 2012. The seeds are crushed, processed and sold by oil production companies such as Bunge, Ventura Foods, Richardson and Stratas Foods. The oils are sold under a variety of brand names, including Nutra-Clear NT, Canola Harvest HiLo, Frymax Sun Supreme and Mel-Fry Free Canola.

TASTE TESTED. As cities such as New York City and Boston have voted to ban artery-clogging trans fats, restaurants and food manufacturers have been working to find healthier options. In addition to the positive health attributes, omega-9 oils offer excellent taste and performance characteristics.

In a consumer taste panel conducted by Jeffrey Gross & Associates, adults and teens equally preferred fries cooked in omega-9 oils to those in partially hydrogenated soybean oil and significantly preferred the omega-9 fries compared to those prepared in low-linolenic soybean oil. Omega-9 oils are naturally stable, allowing superior performance in demanding food service and food manufacturing operations.

According to a frying study conducted by the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, ON, omega-9 oils can last up to 50% longer than partially hydrogenated soybean oil and other oils commonly used in frying. Stability is a key attribute. Because of their oxidative stability, the new omega-9 oils can exert a positive effect on shelf life.

Shortenings based on omega-9 oils “provide texture to bakery items without trading one ‘bad’ fat for another,” according to Mary LaGuardia, marketing manager, Dow Agro-Sciences. “Shortenings made with omega-9 oils provide the required volume, height, firmness and textural properties in baked foods with up to 50% reduction in saturated fat compared with conventional shortenings,” she observed. Because these oils require no hydrogenation, interesterification or additives to assure their stability, they lend themselves to simple, clean product labels.

Changes in the fatty acid profile provide other benefits, according to Terri Volpe, consulting food scientist, Kinnelon, NJ. “This unique fatty acid profile delivers a very light, clean flavor and mouthfeel,” she observed. The “ultra-low linolenic” fat has a low melting point of 50° F, which ensures “that the oil clears quickly from the palate so the flavors that you want to characterize your product dominate, not the oil,” she explained. Chefs prefer omega-9 oils because their light, clean taste does not compete with natural food flavors and menu design.

CLEANER FRYING. Whether frying in a food manufacturing operation or food service, omega-9 oils are the clear choice for cleaner frying. Because omega-9 oils are exceptionally high in monounsaturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fats, they result in less oil polymerization, thus cleaner equipment, restaurants and manufacturing facilities.

Polymerization occurs when frying oil is exposed to heat and oxygen for extended periods of time. Unsaturated fatty acids, particularly polyunsaturated fats, break down and re-form as a solid.

This solid coats equipment and manufacturing surfaces and creates significant challenges for the cleanup crew or sanitation department. Traditional cleaners aren’t effective, and harsher chemicals are often needed to eliminate the results of polymerization. Additional employee labor is required for cleaning. This increase in cleaning time and frequency requires longer equipment downtime and results in lost revenue.

HEART HEALTHY. As companies work to improve the health and wellness platforms of their product offerings, omega-9 oils and multifunctional shortenings can be part of the solution. Since 2006, restaurants that switched to omega-9 oils have removed 478 million lb of “bad” fat from the North American diet. This “heart healthy” fat can reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and diabetes and, along with a healthy lifestyle, will work to improve the health of the American population.