The quest for the perfect oil

In the race to curtail both trans fats and saturated fats in finished food products, manufacturers are developing innovative new blends that work in a wide range of applications. Meanwhile, suppliers of tropical oils are getting a new shot at the marketplace. Patrick McGuigan reports

Standing in a supermarket squinting at an ingredients label, the health-conscious consumer can be forgiven for being bewildered by what is a ?good? or ?bad? fat.

Not so long ago, the public was told that saturated fats were to blame for raising cholesterol and cases of heart disease. According to scientists and nutritionists, the answer to this was unsaturated vegetable fats. But the hydrogenation process required to make these fats solid and to extend their products? shelf life produces trans fats, which were later discovered to raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. This discovery has taken the debate on fats and oils almost full circle, with many now claiming that oils containing saturated fats are the lesser of two evils.

It would certainly seem that trans fats are public enemy No. 1 at the moment, with the Food and Drug Administration ruling that all trans fats must be labelled by 2006 and Danish authorities outlawing trans fats in foods all together.

Consequently, food companies, including McDonald?s, Frito-Lay and Nestle, have moved to reduce or eliminate trans fats in their products.

The change in opinion in the trans fat/saturated fat debate has also made waves among suppliers. Vegetable oil processors are developing new crops and production methods to reduce trans fats, while suppliers of tropical oils, particularly palm oil, have been given a new lease on life.

The reason the future looks particularly bright for palm oil is that it has a relatively low level of saturated fat (50 per cent) compared to other tropical oils, and, of course, no trans fats. These attributes are part of the reason why Malaysian palm oil producer IOI took over Dutch fats and oils company Loders Croklaan in 2002. The company has since announced plans to build Europe?s largest palm oil refinery in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

When Loders CEO Etienne Selosse announced the project, he said: ?We see tremendous opportunity in palm oil. Palm oil is key in providing an alternative to hydrogenated products containing trans fats. Palm opens real market opportunities for Loders Croklaan, as well as our client companies who are looking to eliminate trans fats from their food products.?

Loders Croklaan?s conviction that palm oil can take advantage of concerns over trans fat is based, in part, on a recent survey commissioned in the US on consumer perceptions. The main findings from the survey were as follows:

  • Consumers know that trans fats are a health concern similar to saturates.
  • Given a choice, most consumers would purchase a product without trans.
  • Products that contain hydrogenated fats are assumed to also contain trans.
  • Most consumers would pay a small premium to avoid hydrogenated and trans fats.
  • Consumers had a neutral perception of palm oil as an ingredient on a label.

This survey is part of a concerted effort by Loders Croklaan to re-market palm oil in the US. Loders says that in the 1980s, tropical oils were unfairly ?demonised? for their saturated fat content in the US. In Europe and Asia, for example, the term ?tropical oils? has no such negative connotations. But now that US authorities are targeting trans fats, the boot is on the other foot. As the company says on its website: ?While saturated fat may be linked to palm, the issue of trans and hydrogenation appears to be more important to consumers. Saturates from palm, being more ?natural,? are not as negatively perceived.? To drive its message home, Loders in the US has branded its range of palm oils and shortening as SansTrans.

Another company that is taking advantage of the no-trans characteristic of palm oil is ADM, which has launched a range of zero or low trans fats products containing tropical oils. The NovaLipid line contains blended fats and oils, tropical oils, and interesterified shortenings and margarines. ADM recommends coconut oil for products such as ice cream and coffee whitener, palm kernel oil for fillings and coatings, and palm oil for margarines and filling fats.

NovaLipid shortenings and margarines are solidified through enzyme interesterification rather than hydrogenation, resulting in reduced trans fats. ADM claims to be the only company in the US using this process commercially at its Quincy, Illinois, plant.

Companies are resorting to other processes like interesterification to generate solid fats with less trans fatty acids
At Texas A&M University, Ernesto Hernandez, head of the fats and oils processing program, says that interesterification is interesting a lot of the oil companies. ?Saturated fats are not yet seen as the healthier alternative to trans fats.?The main development in the US is that companies are resorting to other processes like interesterification to generate solid fats with less trans fatty acids,? he says. ?Also, they are using more saturated palm oils in blends with?domestic products.?

The best of both worlds
While the relative benefits of hydrogenated vegetable oils and tropical oils are batted back and forth between oil suppliers, it still leaves food manufacturers with the difficult choice of trans fats vs saturated fats. What companies really want are oils that have low levels of both.

Cargill Refined Oils Europe says it has come up with just such a solution. Its Losatra range, launched in October 2004, is made from vegetable oils and uses proprietary hydrogenation techniques to reduce trans fats levels up to 80 per cent. The oils are naturally low in saturates, and are solid and stable enough to be used in applications such as bakery fats and spreads.

?Until now for these applications the only alternative to trans fatty acids was to replace them with oils that contain high levels of saturated fatty acids. Losatra offers a healthy alternative for trans fatty acid reduction, while limiting the level of saturated fatty acids,? says Bas van Duinen of Cargill Refined Oils Europe. So confident is Cargill that it has built a dedicated production unit to manufacture it in Hamburg, Germany.

Another vegetable oil claiming to offer the twin benefits of low saturated fat and no trans fats is Natreon canola oil, which was first unveiled by Dow AgroSciences in 2003 and was officially rolled out at the end of 2004. As global business leader for oil/oilseeds David Dzisiak says: ?Natreon offers the whole package — virtually trans fat free and lowest available in saturated fats. It is high in the good fatty acids that provide health benefits, has great taste and has very high functionality for food service commercial demands.?

Natreon, which can be used for frying and for extending shelf life, contains about seven per cent saturated fat, 70 per cent monounsaturated fat and a higher omega-3 polyunsaturated fat content than most of the partially hydrogenated oils it can replace. The company is also looking at ways of solidifying the oil using interesterification techniques.

Dzisiak says the oil is particularly suitable for food service frying and spraying applications. ?With Natreon, consumers will be able to go into a quick-service restaurant and buy French fries that actually contain fats that are good for them, like monounsaturated fats and omega-3s,? says Dzisiak.

To develop the Natreon oils, Dow AgroScience used the latest plant-breeding technology to grow canola with characteristics suitable for producing oils with low trans and saturated fats. Although not genetically modified, these canola varieties were developed using ?some of the tools of biotechnology,? says the company, and adds that this helped bring them to market early.

?These processes have also been a breakthrough because we can produce crops more efficiently and deliver them at the scale required,? says Dzisiak. ?It?s no longer cost prohibitive to switch oils.?

It?s not just Dow AgroScience that is breeding new crop varieties. Monsanto announced in September 2004 it had developed new low-linolenic soybeans using conventional breeding techniques that would reduce or eliminate trans fats in soybean oil. Branded Vistive, the beans contain less than three per cent linolenic acid compared to eight per cent in traditional soybeans, which means there is less need for partial hydrogenation of the oil.

Around 100,000 acres of the new Vistive crop have been planted for the 2005 harvest in Iowa, which will be processed into oils by Ag Processing and Cargill. ?We don?t expect this to meet demand. It?s a small fraction of the entire US soybean crop (which stands at around 75 million acres), but it will hopefully start to address the trans fat situation,? says Monsanto?s Chris Horner in public affairs. ?We expect to ramp up the amount grown in the coming years. There will be oils available in time for the (FDA?s) 2006 trans fats deadline.? The eventual cost of oil made from the Vistive soybeans is unclear, but Horner says that the processors are paying the farmers a premium to grow the crop.

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