Ever since the war on trans fats began with the 2003 announcement that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would require labeling for trans fats, bakers and snack food producers have been struggling with the weakest links in their products: the fats and oils. Whether it’s their nutrition properties, shelf life impacts, or flavor and texture profiles, oils and shortenings have often fallen short of marketplace expectations. For years, fats and oils have been a liability for baking and snack food companies. But recent innovations in this area may change all that.

“Fat has been perceived as being a negative all the time,” said Willie Loh, PhD, vice-president of marketing, Cargill Oils and Shortenings, Wayzata, MN. “’Can you take out the trans?’ ‘Can you reduce the saturated fat level?’ And what we’re saying today is that fat can be a positive.”

For many in the industry, that positive comes from the high oleic acid content in the latest generation of oils — primarily canola and soybean but also sunflower.

“Oil is simply a mixture of fatty acids, and you can breed plants that make more of this or less of that,” said David Dzisiak, global commercial leader, grains and oils, Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, IN. “We’ve learned how to do that quite well, so we’ve got some very exciting new products on the horizon.”

The raw materials

Hardly a new product, high-oleic sunflower oil has been around since the mid-1980s. Derived from conventional breeding, the oil was not well-received in the US, according to Larry Kleingartner of the National Sunflower Association (NSA), Mandan, ND. In fact, most of it was exported. “The industry at that time was not interested unless it was equal or cheaper than hydrogenated soybean oil,” he said.

In anticipation of the trans fat labeling requirements, NSA and its partners developed a mid-oleic sunflower oil that is stable without hydrogenation. NuSun has less than 10% saturated fat, between 55 and 75% oleic acid and the remainder being linoleic. “NuSun filled a huge void as companies began to scramble to find substitutes for hydrogenated soy and avoid having to label trans when the labeling requirement was put in place by FDA,” Mr. Kleingartner said.

Nutrisun, a new sunflower oil, is high in both stearic acid, at 18%, and oleic acid, at 70%. “As a result, Nutrisun oil offers higher stability than any other commercially available vegetable oil,” said Leo Manning, vice-president, sales and marketing, TCI, Winston-Salem, NC, the North American supplier of Nutrisun oil. “It can extend shelf life and improve the nutritional profile of snack chips, crackers, chocolate coatings, spreads and a wide variety of bakery applications where high solid fat content is required.” 

Another option to fill this void came more recently with high-oleic canola oil. The oil’s higher levels of mono­unsaturated fat, or oleic acid, and less polyunsaturated fat make it more shelf-stable. “Like classic canola oil, high-oleic canola oils are low in saturated fat, which can offer bakery and snack manufacturers labeling and marketing advantages,” said Cory McArthur, vice-president of market development at the Canola Council of Canada, Winnipeg, MB.

Labeling advantages are in high demand as bakers and snack manufacturers race to keep up with consumers’ aversion to ingredients they can’t pronounce. SK Food International offers expeller high-oleic sunflower and expeller non-genetically-modified (GM) high-oleic canola oils. “Expeller oils are a good fit for the natural industry or those manufacturers wanting to stay away from solvent extraction, which allows for a cleaner label on the ingredient panel,” said Jennifer Tesch, sales and marketing director of the Fargo, ND-based company.

Avoiding GM allows for cleaner labels in countries outside the US, which does not require labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and shortens the deregulation process with FDA. Using traditional plant breeding, Dow AgroSciences developed Omega-9 Canola Oil, which is high in monounsaturated fats at more than 70%. The company is also in the process of launching Omega-9 Sunflower Oil, “the first oil that qualifies for a 0 saturated fats claim,” according to Mr. Dzisiak. “[Both oils] can help improve the nutrition panel, front-of-package claims and the ingredient panel on a food product.”

Front-of-package claims are also a focus for Cargill, which developed Clear Valley Omega-3 oil and shortening. The ingredients feature a blend of canola and flaxseed oils, allowing food manufacturers to claim “good” or “excellent” source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3 on the front of their packages.

Exploring new options

The latest oils to arrive on the high-oleic stage come from soybeans. Relying on hydrogenation for stability, soybean oil was particularly hard hit by FDA’s trans fat labeling mandate because hydrogenation creates trans fats. “Scientists at Pioneer anticipated that move and developed high-oleic soybean oil for the food industry as a replacement for partially hydrogenated oils,” said Susan Knowlton, senior research manager, Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, Wilmington, DE.

The company genetically modified soybeans to decrease the polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acid, and increase monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, providing stability for the oil without hydrogenation. Pioneer’s Plenish oil contains more than 75% oleic acid and has 20% less saturated fat than commodity soybean oil. Its linolenic acid content is less than 3%, compared with 7% for conventional soybean oil.

Genetically modified organisms’ lengthy approval process slows commercialization. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved Pioneer’s Plenish high-oleic soybean trait for cultivation in the US in 2010, and several soybean farmers harvested Plenish soybeans in 2011.

Monsanto Co., St. Louis, MO, is also nearing the finish line in the high-oleic soybean race, having achieved USDA deregulated status with the MON 87750 trait in its Vistive Gold high-oleic soybeans this past December. Vistive Gold soybean oil contains 75% oleic acid and 60% less saturated fat than conventional soybean oil. Linolenic acid in its oil is less than 3%.

Another Monsanto project is a stearidonic acid (SDA) soybean oil it is developing with Solae, St. Louis, MO: Soymega. These oils are a land-based, sustainable source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been clinically shown to convert to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) when consumed, according to Rick Wilkes, director of food applications for Monsanto.

“SDA soybean oil has a similar flavor, shelf life and stability as soybean oil, giving food companies the opportunity to use the SDA soybean oil and promote the reported heart-health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids,” Mr. Wilkes said. “Most vegetable oils, including soybean oil, contain the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which has been reported to have poor conversion to the long-chain form EPA. SDA has been demonstrated to convert more efficiently to EPA, and research has indicated the heart-health benefits of EPA.”

Although the jury is still out on heart-health effects of certain fatty acids, high-oleic oils have proven to improve shelf life of products. “From a direct application standpoint for snack foods, the high-oleic incorporates very significantly improved oxidative stability,” said Don Banks, president, Edible Oil Technology, Dallas, TX.

Stability represents one of the more appealing benefits of high-oleic oils to baking and snack food companies because it lends itself to the clean-label movement in demand among consumers. Baked food and snack formulations no longer need to include antioxidants such as tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) to ensure adequate shelf life.

Beyond the obvious benefit of products’ being fresh when they get into consumers’ hands, stability on the shelf yields some unexpected cost savings for baking and snack companies. “If we were to look at almost any product on the shelf today, the most expensive ingredient there is actually the packaging,” Dr. Loh said. “A product that’s sensitive to oxidation may well have five layers of oxygen barriers in the packaging.” Because high-oleic oils have high oxidative stability, however, companies can see a positive effect in their bottom lines with decreased packaging costs.

Real-world applications

All of these benefits come to nothing if they can’t be incorporated into foods in an effective way. Alone, the high-oleic oils are a 1:1 replacement for spray oils and frying applications. (For more on frying applications, click here.) But for bakery use, formulations need a solid component.

“Shortening blends are possible with adequate solids and less saturated fat, providing the same functionality with a more healthful product,” said Richard Galloway, president of Galloway and Associates and consultant to Qualisoy. “While high-oleic canola has been available in limited quantity, high-oleic soybeans will be grown over a much broader geography. This will make it less susceptible to reduced volume availability in a year with marginal growing conditions.”

ADM, Decatur, IL, and Bunge North America, St. Louis, MO, are testing enzymatic interesterification with Pioneer’s Plenish high-oleic soybean oil. “The beauty of [enzymatic interesterification] is it’s completely green technology — nothing in the process is harmful in the form of the ingredients used or the byproducts that it throws off,” said John Jansen, regulatory, quality and innovation, Bunge. The company’s process mimics the body’s digestion to rearrange triglycerides, so the oil contains higher solids at lower temperatures and very few solids at body temperature.

In most cases, these interesterified shortenings are a drop-in replacement for existing all-purpose shortenings. “Sometimes the product may be more tolerant to temperature change and, therefore, provide the baker with a wider temperature range to use the shortening or process the baked good,” said Tom Tiffany, senior technical manager, ADM.

Stratas Foods, Memphis, TN, an ACH/ADM company, offers custom blends for its bakery customers, aiming to replace current ingredients on a 1:1 basis while removing trans fats and/or reducing saturates. “The shortening, margarine and oil offerings benefit from custom blending protocols and proprietary processing techniques to yield ingredients that are optimized in terms of finished product functionality and shelf life,” said Roger Daniels, vice-president, research, development and innovation, Stratas Foods.

Palm oil is a common tool for achieving the necessary solid fat level in baked foods. AarhusKarshamn (AAK) USA, Edison, NJ, recently launched a complete line of bakery fats for the food service industry, including baker’s margarine, laminating margarine, and cake and icing shortening. AAK also offers a complete line of low-saturated-fat ingredients for the industrial bakery sector. “These fats can make use of new low-sat, high-oleic oilseed varieties,” said Jeffrey Fine, PhD, director of new products and technology, AAK USA. “These are offered under the EsSence line and deliver the three most desirable attributes in a single shortening: lower saturated fat, non-hydrogenated and no trans fat.”

Fractionation allows companies to separate the different fat molecules of palm oil and other semisolid oils to custom-blend fats with desired properties including hardness and melting point. “Palm oil fractions are the ‘building blocks’ used to design trans-free products,” said Gerald McNeill, PhD, vice-president, R&D, Loders Croklaan, Channahon, IL, which specializes in blending semisolid fats and shortenings for products that require a solid fat for functionality. “In addition, we blend currently available liquid oils — canola, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower oil — with palm oil to modify the functionality of the fractions and to reduce saturated fat content.”

While current oils have a high level of polyunsaturates and are thus unstable, the company plans to use the new high-oleic oils to increase products’ shelf lives for customers. “The opportunity is that we combine our palm oil fractions with that highly stable oil, and that will give you the shelf life in addition to the modified texture and the reduced saturated fats while maintaining functionality,” Dr. McNeill said.

The time for evaluating high-oleic oil is now. “The oil will be commercially available in the next few years, and for many companies, it takes quite a bit of time testing to qualify a new oil for their food products,” Ms. Knowlton said. “There’s understanding shelf life, for example, and can you remove additives, and what is the increase in shelf life? All of those questions really should be explored by the food manufacturer.”

Whatever the answers to those questions for each individual company, it’s clear fats and oils need no longer be the weakest links in most formulations. “Don’t look at the fat ingredient on your formula as being the liability,” Dr. Loh said. “We can offer something positive to the consumer.”