Slippery Slope

By Kathie Canning

As trans fats disappear, their replacements containing saturates come under scrutiny.

It’s been well over a year since a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruling dictating the labeling of trans fatty acids on Nutritional Facts panels went into effect. The ruling, which saw snack and baked good producers scrambling to reformulate products, now is old news. A quick walk down supermarket aisles shows that most processors have reduced or eliminated the trans fat from their products.
Yet, as the trans fat anxiety dies down — at least on the retail side of operations — another fat- and oil-related concern is coming into the fore. Scientists, processors and consumers now are scrutinizing trans fat replacements, especially when the stand-ins are saturated fats.
Evil vs. Evil?
Few experts would deny the health risks associated with trans fat.
Mohd Salleh Kassim, executive director of the American Palm Oil Council in Torrance, Calif., points to “The Trans Fat Dilemma: Health Versus Functionality,” a Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) report that suggests trans fat increases total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL, the so-called “bad” cholesterol), while decreasing the beneficial high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol). The report cites a number of studies that establish a clear association between trans fat consumption and increased incidence of — and death from — cardiovascular disease.
But the debate rages on as to the health effects of saturates-containing replacements. This might be a non-issue for potato chips and many other snack items, which mainly use healthier liquid oils, but it’s an ongoing concern for many bakery items requiring solid fats for functionality.
“The American Heart Association does not consider saturated fats acceptable substitutions for trans fats,” notes Steve Poole, technical consultant for the United Soybean Board, St. Louis. “While oils with higher melting points and a saturated fat content of about 50% might replace partially hydrogenated fats in the baking and confection industries, the benefit of trans fat reduction should be weighed carefully against saturated fats’ negative effect on blood cholesterol levels.”
Tom Tiffany, food oils applications manager for Decatur, Ill.-based Archer Daniels Midland’s ADM Oils unit, agrees that saturated fats are a concern. Ironically, he says, one of the main reasons for the development of trans fat-laden, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils was to reduce the amount of saturates in shortenings and frying oils.
“When trans are significantly reduced in bakery shortenings and margarine, and functionality issues arise, one way to improve or maintain functionality is to use saturates,” Tiffany says. “Saturates typically used to improve functionality are palmitic or stearic saturates.”
Yet, a growing body of research suggests that saturates represent a lesser health risk than trans fat. According to the MPOC report, for instance, one major study in women found that a 2% increase in trans fat consumption relative to carbohydrate intake resulted in relative risk scores of 1.93 for coronary heart disease and 1.39 for type 2 diabetes. In contrast, a comparable increase of saturated fatty acid consumption resulted in significantly lower scores for the same diseases: 1.17 and 0.97, respectively.
“The mainstream medical and nutritional communities, I think, believe — and I think it’s very well-established — that trans fat is a worse cardiovascular risk than a saturated fat,” says Jeff Fine, director of new products and technology for AarhusKarlshamm USA, Port Newark, N.J. “And that really was the driving factor for replacing trans fat with saturated fat. ...  There are certain applications which absolutely require saturated fat for functionality.”
Gerald McNeill, vice president of R&D and marketing for Channahon, Ill.-based Loders Croklaan North America, says the “cutting edge” scientific community now believes trans fat is much worse than saturated fat.
“I was at a conference [recently], and a representative from a Harvard University research group (Dariush Mozaffarian) gave a presentation that was highly convincing,” he says. “He said that, in fact, saturated fats have a relatively weak effect on heart disease, per say.
“The whole idea that saturated fats are similar to trans fat comes from serum cholesterol — total cholesterol in the blood or LDL, the bad cholesterol, and that’s the old model,” he adds. “There are many other markers in the body or changes in metabolism that affect risk of heart disease that you absolutely do not see.”
Pulling together data from different science disciplines, the Harvard research group concluded that trans fat is much worse than saturates, McNeill says. In fact, saturated fats appear to have no effect on women’s risk for heart disease and only a weak effect on men’s risk.
A Fat Fix
As the saturates debate continues, suppliers of fats and oils continue to hone their trans fat-free solutions for the snack and bakery sector. The object here is to retain functionality while minimizing the amount of saturates needed — right or wrong, from a consumer standpoint, saturated fats still are perceived as a negative.
As the MOPC report contends, “Reformulated solid fats should not contain increased contents of SFA [saturated fatty acids]. A primary consideration in the food industry today is to count the sum of TFA [trans fatty acids] and SFA as cholesterol-elevating. A reformulated product, at best, must reflect significantly reduced amounts of this arithmetic sum if the stated goal of designing healthier solid fats is achievable. The choice now appears to be narrowed between natural semi-solid fats such as palm oil, cottonseed oil and/or TFA-free interesterified fats.”
Snack and bakery product developers also must strike the right balance among taste, quality, nutrition and price, notes Roger Daniels, director of new business development for Bradley, Ill.-based Bunge Oils, part of Bunge North America.
“Each of Bunge Oils’ reduced/no trans product has its place in bakery and food processor products,” he says. “The current challenge is finding the shortening, margarine or oil option that yields the desired functionality and organoleptic attributes during the product’s life cycle.”
Among the latest solutions from Bunge is the RighT Technology, made through a patented process in which oil is hydrogenated with a specific catalyst under heat and pressure to reduce trans fat by 80%. Daniels says the technology results in about a 33% reduction in the total trans fat/saturates level compared to traditional shortening and margarine, and serves as a “drop-in” replacement in traditional bakery applications. Meanwhile, Bunge’s Nutra-Clear and Treus identity-preserved oils use canola seed with a higher oleic acid content to provide a good shelf life without hydrogenation, Daniel says.
“These products are two-and-one-half to three times as stable as traditional soy or canola oils,” he notes. “They may be used in fryers, as spray oils and as a component of bakery shortenings.”
This summer, Loders Croklaan is introducing three new fats that aim to enhance flakiness and improve processability in trans fat-free bakery laminating fats. The solutions target three key applications: croissant-type products, Danish and pie crusts.
“One thing about straight palm oil as a solution is that it tends to get brittle at lower temperatures,” says McNeill. “And if the temperature drops down just 3°F or 4°F from ambient, typically the palm oil sets up after a few hours. Because it’s brittle, you can’t roll it out anymore.”
Loders Croklaan’s new palm oil-based fats — which also incorporate some liquid vegetable oil — resolve this issue, helping dough retain a smooth, plastic texture, even if the temperature swings up or down by 10°F.
The company also is looking at ways to reduce saturated fat as a response to consumer demands, McNeil notes.
“We came out with a product last year which is about 35% saturates compared to the 50% you get with straight palm oil,” he says. “We spent a lot of time developing that, so we have retained all the functionality of palm oil. It’s a drop-in solution. So if someone is using palm oil today, they can use this with say a 30% reduction of saturated fat today, without any changes in processing or shelf life. It works for any baked goods, anything that uses all-purpose shortening.”
AarhusKarlshamm’s new Essence line of bakery shortenings combines three positive attributes, Fine says. The line contains no trans fat, is non-hydrogenated and is relatively low in saturated fats. It can be used in cookies, pies, biscuits and more, and also as a frying fat for doughnuts.
For ADM Oils, interesterified soybean oil-based shortenings and margarine provide a way for bakery and snack processors to create “0 grams trans fat per serving” lipid systems, Tiffany says.
“Enzymatic interesterified shortenings and margarines utilizing soybean oil and fully hydrogenated soybean oil tend to be rich in stearic, omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids,” he notes. “The American Heart Association has indicated that stearic acid may not affect or may even lower blood cholesterol.
“When soybean oil is used as the liquid portion of the blend, the levels of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids also increase compared to palm oil or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used for similar applications,” he adds. “ADM has also received notification from the FDA that when foods are formulated with interesterified soybean oil, the descriptor of ‘interesterified soybean oil’ can be used in the ingredient statement.”
ADM also offers a variety of palm-based solutions that exhibit “excellent oxidative stability,” Tiffany notes.
In Search of Stability
The United Soy Board, St. Louis, has joined forces with technology companies, oil processors/suppliers and food manufacturers in an initiative — QUALISOY — to launch more naturally stable soybean oils. Among the trans fat solutions in QUALISOY’S research pipeline are:
• Low-linolenic soybean oil, the first commercially available enhanced oil. This has 3% or less linolenic acid and works well for some snack foods and basic frying applications. It offers a flavor stability that is better than that of partially hydrogenated oil.
• Increased oleic soybean oil, under development for improved oxidative stability and excellent flavor stability. This will contain more than 50% oleic acid and will benefit fried products, baked goods and other foods that undergo high-heat processing.
• A high-stearic soybean variety, which is planned for future development. This is expected to result in a healthier oil option for baking and heavy frying applications requiring a solid fat.
Ready or Not
Next up for trans fat elimination? The foodservice industry.
New York City’s trans fat ban, which largely targets fast food and doughnut outlets, went into effect July 1. The law is the first of its kind in the United States.
“I think a lot of fats and oils people are gearing up for that — it’s going to be a major challenge as the foodservice side of the industry has to convert over,” says Jeff Fine, director of new products and technology for Port Newark, N.J.-based AarhusKarlshamm USA. “And I’m sure it’s going to spread from New York to other places. I think that will be the next real challenge here.”
Ventura Foods LLC, Brea, Calif., is one company offering a wide range trans fat-free solutions — from shortening and oils to pan coatings and flavored cooking syrup — for foodservice needs.
And many chains are taking a proactive approach and cutting out trans fat across all their locations. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Hooters, Inc. are just two of the latest major chains to announce an intended switch to zero-trans frying oil. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Chili’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Ruby Tuesday’s already offer trans fat-free products, although not necessarily at all locations nationwide.