All you fats and oil users: Get ready. The Food and Drug Administration could yank the GRAS status of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) as soon as June. This action, first proposed in November 2013, is nearing its final stages, with the deadline for agency action set by a case in US District Court, Kummerow v. Hamburg.

The proposed revocation drew some 1,500 public comments and deepened consumer concerns about this common bakery and snack ingredient. It also lit a fire under the fats and oils industry, heating up the search already underway for alternatives to PHOs and the trans fatty acids they contain.

These same trans fats, created by hydrogenation, are responsible for much of the functionality of bakery and frying shortenings, especially the physical structure and shelf life extension of finished products. Thanks to oilseed breeding programs that started long before the trans fat issue arose, new-generation oils now carry more healthful fatty acid profiles. Simultaneously, palm oil, whose saturated fats provide stability and texturizing functions, came back into the picture as research began to question commonly held opinions about saturated fats and fractionation technology was applied to increase shortening formulation options.

There’s no question but conventional bakery fats, based on PHOs, will be hard to replace. Success with alternatives takes knowledge on the part of formulators and experience among operations staff.

Tide of acceptance

Yes, there is something new under the sun: trait-­enhanced canola, soy and sunflower oils. Although commodity oils still overshadow these in volume, the new oils are seeing growing acceptance by food processors. They bring benefits all their own.

Acceptance of trait-enhanced oils is steadily on the rise, noted Jessica Blackford, research scientist, AarhusKarlshamn USA, Inc. (AAK), Edison, NJ. “The market is in search of solutions that are not only functional but also designed to meet specific nutritional targets, which include trans-fatty acid free, lower saturates or with selected levels of specific unsaturated fatty acids,” she said. “These solutions are geared to deliver high stability, help extend shelf life and also provide structure and texture to bakery and snack items without compromising their quality.”

The market continues to seek more functional oils, according to David Dzisiak, commercial leader, grains and oils, Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, IN. “These oils, as they become more available, are also becoming more affordable for a wider range of users. You don’t need to look at these as specialty use only; they’ve become mainstream,” Mr. Dzisiak said.

This is good news for bakery shortening suppliers. “We will continue to see an increase in end-use applications as the newer oil offerings continue to progress to leverage economies of scale,” predicted Roger L. Daniels, vice-president, research, development and innovation, Stratas Foods, LLC, Memphis, TN.

By shifting the fatty acid content of such oils to emphasize monounsaturated fats, their stability increased many times over. This change means improved shelf life not only for the liquid oils but also for finished products.  “Trait-enhanced oils have been embraced by the food industry as a means to achieve good oxidative stability in a liquid oil without need for hydrogenation,” said Bob Johnson, director of R&D, Bunge Oils, St. Louis. Higher-oleic varieties of canola, safflower and sunflower oils are already in use in snacks and baked goods, while high-oleic soybeans are now more widely commercialized, he observed.

High-oleic soybean oil, for example, is rich in oleic acid and lean in linolenic acid and “has excellent stability compared with its commodity counterpart,” said Marie Wright, vice-president and chief global flavorist, ADM Wild Flavors & Specialty Ingredients, Decatur, IL. “This option continues to grow in the market and provides another possibility for food processors to benefit from trait-enhanced oils.”

Clean label, clean fryer

With more oleic acid comes another benefit: cleaner labels. “In some instances, a trait-enhanced oil can be used to meet shelf life without the addition of antioxidants,” Ms. Wright said. “This could be a decision factor for conversion to a high-oleic option.”

Lynne Morehart, oils and shortenings senior principal scientist, Cargill, Minneapolis, offered this tip to formulators: “Oils with higher levels of monounsaturates and lower levels of linolenic content equate to better oxidative stability and good oil flavor throughout shelf life,” she said.

“Trait-enhanced oils are liquid at room temperature,” Ms. Morehart continued. “In that form, they are good candidates for applications where a solid shortening is not required for functionality. This would include snack frying, incorporation in bars, spray oils and muffins. Because these oils are also typically more oxidatively stable, they result in good flavor profiles throughout the shelf life of finished products.”

Another benefit is cleaner fryers. “The higher oleic oils, having less polyunsaturated fats, are also less prone to polymerization and require less rigorous cleaning of fryers, belts and oven bands than their commodity counterparts,” Mr. Johnson observed.

Snack food producers were quick to pick up on stability benefits. “The snack industry has adopted high-stability liquid oils aggressively, as they represent highly functional replacements for previous partially hydrogenated ingredients,” said Richard Galloway, president, Galloway & Associates, Isle of Pines, SC, and a consultant for Qualisoy, St. Louis.

Stability is important because of the way snacks are packaged and consumed. “These oils are particularly interesting to popcorn, a category exploding with growth in the ready-to-eat area,” Mr. Dzisiak said. “Essentially, popcorn is a fried product, but even when air-popped, oils help adhere seasonings and enhance flavors. Popcorn is a product that doesn’t always get completely eaten in one sitting.”

Such changes also enhance nutrition, a factor cited by Lloyd Watt, western sales manager, bakery ingredients, Richardson Oilseeds, Winnipeg, MB, among others. “The fatty acid profile [of high-oleic canola oil] not only outlines the overall stability trait of oil, but it also contributes to the more visible nutritional profile of the finished product,” he said.

Another driver is their healthy image, an aspect of increasing importance in the snack market. “Healthy snacking is a growing, expanding category,” Mr. Dzisiak noted. “Being low in saturated fats, the oils have a very good nutritional profile.” He pointed to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s 2015 recommendations that continue to push Americans to cut the amount of saturated fats in their diets.

Blending for baking

Compared with picking an oil suitable for snack processing, the choice of fats for baked goods is a far more complex decision. “A lot of bakers require more of a shortening than an oil,” Mr. Dzisiak explained. “The trait-enhanced oils will work in these uses, not so much as a stand-alone fat but votated or blended with other oils. And they bring a high level of stability to these uses, which commodity soy or canola lacks.”

Bakery applications require fats with a semi-solid texture that can stabilize air cells to generate a light and crumbly texture in the finished product, and that’s where blending enters the picture. The new-generation oils are liquid at room temperature. “These oils can be used with a structuring source — palm oil, fully hydrogenated oils or diglycerides,” Ms. Morehart said.

Mid-oleic sunflower oil and high-oleic canola oil have been used commercially for more than a decade and have found homes in frying and spray oil applications, Ms. Wright noted, but these nutritionally advantageous and stable oils can be used in shortenings. “By blending with a solid, such as palm oil, palm fractions or fully hydrogenated soybean oil, either oil source can have a place in shortenings for bakery applications,” she said.

A variety of trait-enhanced oils are now available commercially, which opens the doors to more complex applications. “Usually, blends of trait-enhanced oils are chosen to design solutions that target specific nutritional claims along with delivering or improving on expected functionality,” said Monica Zelaya-Brown, customer innovation manager, AarhusKarlshamn USA.

The baker’s target is a shortening that performs like the traditional PHO option. Getting there is the shortening manufacturer’s job. “The most successful options include, but are not limited to, palm-oil-based shortenings and interesterified shortenings composed of soybean and fully hydrogenated soybean oils,” Mr. Daniels said. “In our development labs, we focus on perfecting palm and interesterified shortenings with the same look, feel and performance of what bakers have experienced over their careers at the ovens.”

Interesterification, which randomizes the arrangement of fatty acids within triglyceride molecules, continues to advance. “[Through interesterification], the soybean industry … can now reproduce almost the full spectrum of shortening products previously produced through partial hydrogenation,” Mr. Galloway said. “Work with interesterified high-oleic soybean oil shows great promise.”

Partnered with palm

The drive to eliminate PHOs pushes the case for palm oil, too. “Not all fatty acids are created equal,” Mr. Daniels told an American Society of Baking audience at BakingTech 2015. “In bakery applications, trans was a workhorse, but saturated fat in PHO-free bakery shortenings is a workhorse of a different type.”

Palm oil, with 40 to 50% saturated fat content, provides the solid fat and crystal structure necessary for many bakery applications. It does not require further processing by hydrogenation or interesterification, according to Alton Berquist, quality assurance, Ciranda, Inc., Hudson, WI. And it is non-GMO.

An interesting aspect to palm oil is that it is not simply a single oil or fat but a natural blend of dozens of different fats and oils. “The many components that make up natural palm oil can be separated from each other using a non-chemical process called fractionation,” explained Gerald McNeill, PhD, vice-president, R&D and marketing, IOI Loders Croklaan Americas, Channahon, IL.

By slowly cooling the melted oil and filtering off the crystals that form, the process results in two new oils with different physical properties. These oils can be fractionated further, yielding up to 10 unique compounds.

“If desired, the fractions can be blended with liquid oils such as the new trait-enhanced soy and canola oils,” Dr. McNeill said. “In this way, almost an unlimited range of shortenings can be generated to suit the needs of bakers; elimination of PHO is an excellent example.”

Mr. Berquist advised formulators, “Palm oil’s crystallization rate is slower than modified oils, which can lead to difficulties in applications where faster crystallization rates are needed. Bakers need to understand the functional relationship between oils containing saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and how the proper balance of these constituents can provide the attributes they need in their applications.”

In seeking alternatives to PHOs and trans fats, bakers have been criticized for moving to palm oil because of its saturated fat content. But the nutrition landscape is shifting.

“Almost all of the recent large studies in the field have found no connection between saturated fat consumption and risk of heart disease,” Dr. McNeill said, noting the similarity between such findings and those concerning monounsaturated fat, which makes up the remainder of palm oil’s fatty acids.

Mr. Galloway acknowledged the promise of palm oil partnerships. “The US palm oil industry is looking toward blends of solid fat from palm products with high-oleic soybean oil to produce bakery shortenings with excellent functionality, lower saturated fat — due to the soy blend — and high oxidative stability for high heat and extended shelf life characteristics,” he said.

The availability factor

Available for more than a decade now, trait-enhanced oils have gone mainstream. For example, canola has nearly doubled in poundage since 2010, bringing it to 4.6 billion lb, according to Mr. Dzisiak. “A lot of that growth came from high-stability oils, which now offer a reliable supply chain with more suppliers than ever before, a factor that is key to serving large markets like bakery and snacks.”

Yet these are not commodity oils, and buyers need to understand the supply chain. “The biggest challenge for customers in moving to trait-enhanced oils has not been related to performance and handling,” Mr. Johnson observed. “It has primarily been in learning the difference in cost and advanced planning for these oils versus their commodity counterparts. The trait-enhanced oils require the oil suppliers to contract acreage directly with farmers in advance of planting and to identity preserve the oil throughout the supply chain.”

There’s a trade factor involved, too. Mr. Galloway explained, “The EU has not yet advanced high-oleic soybean — and eight other global soybean biotech traits — through its complex approval process. Once approval is received, seed, bean and oil availability will ratchet up quickly.”

For the baker and snack maker, Mr. Watt said, this boils down a decision on whether to invest in the long-term success of their own products with cleaner labels, better nutritional profiles and tastier finished goods.