The packaged food industry has removed roughly three-quarters of the 8 billion pounds of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) that abounded in the marketplace at the heyday of trans fats in 2004-‘05, though a few problem areas and holdouts remain—particularly in the bakery segment amid concerns about viable, sustainable replacements, says Bunge.
The industry has been voluntarily phasing out trans fats for years ahead of the FDA’s announcement this winter that it would revoke GRAS status of PHOs, but there’s still “a balance of roughly 2bn pounds of PHOs left in the marketplace,” John Jansen, vice president, Regulatory, Quality & Innovation, told FoodNavigator-USA. “Of our volume since the FDA’s announcement, we’ve moved about another 25% out of our portfolio. If I extrapolated that that was a fair assessement of the industry as a whole, that would leave about 1.5bn pounds still in the market.”
Roughly 80% of Bunge’s customers have alternative products to switch to, with the remaining 20% holding out because of the cost or availability of alternatives or because they’re not sure how the legislation will play out—with the FDA mulling comments on trans fats and Nutrition Facts changes looming for 2015 as well, Jansen noted.
Saturates still not good for us, Bunge says
One area of particular contention in the trans fat phaseout is that many formulators are simply trading PHOs for palm oil blends that are high in saturated fats. Upping the confusion even further was a flurry of recent studies claiming that saturated fat isn’t as detrimental to heart health as we’ve been led to believe and questioning the dietary guidelines’ recommendations for replacing sat fats with carbohydrates or omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (see here and here ). Such camps have argued that saturated fats increased intake of refined carbs is to blame for the rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to saturates—despite the recent research—Bunge remains confident that they aren’t beneficial to health, with Jansen calling the move to readdress the issue somewhat futile.
“One thing that consumers have been educated is that saturated fats are bad. There doesn’t seem to be much benefit to try and reeducate the public on that issue,” he said.
Many bakery products just aren’t the same without PHOs
Some areas have proven relatively painless for manufacturers to switch from trans fats to options such as value-added salad oils like high-oleic canola and soon-to-follow high-oleic soybean oil in frying. But for certain industries, key products arguably won’t be the same without PHOs, such as icing, where PHOs have historically provided good plasticity for production, aeration, volume and crystal structure.
"What’s been done on the bakery side is again in order to get away from trans and saturated fat, end users have been hesitant to just add in palm oil at 48% saturates,” Jansen said. “When they’re trading small levels of trans fats for more highly saturated fats, most end users don’t want to make wholesale changes to palm oil unless no alternatives are available.”
Not only does palm oil crystalize differently than partial hydrogenated vegetable oil, effectively eliminating the wide plastic range for many products, but the palm supply chain is half a world away, Jansen added. Despite suppliers’ efforts to prevent shortages in North America, much of the world’s palm is sold “free on board” from Malaysia or Indonesia, meaning “there isn't a Chicago Board of Trade to make sales transparent,” he added.
Sustainability is a big issue for many customers, given concerns raised (quite publicly) by NGOs in recent months, coupled by the fact that the documentation to prove palm oil is green can be cumbersome.
“That is changing as more certified products become available, but if you have a name brand to protect at the retail level you have to be concerned and very vigilant concerning the origination of your supply,” Jansen said. “There is a lot more palm oil that’s truly sustainable available; it’s just a matter of getting the infrastructure to move it and the timing to get necessary validations.”
Rearranging fatty acids, blending structuring fats the future for bakery
Thus, much of Bunge’s bakery market innovation has been centered on enzymatic interesterification (EIE, in which fatty acids are rearranged to provide structure and functionality at room temperature) and the introduction of structuring fat blends—which help reduce reliance on foreign sources of palm oil without compromising functionality.
“With EIE, you are using domestic oils and green technology to transform the fatty acids along the glycerin backbone at the first and third fatty position,” Jansen said. “You’re effectively rearranging the product, so it acts similarly to traditional, all-purpose shortening while still using a domestic oil like soybean. It uses fewer food miles when compared to palm oil.”
With structuring fat blends, soybean, canola or other liquid oils are combined with structuring fats, which are in turn produced using fractions from palm or palm kernel oils, thus optimizing use of saturated fats while also replacing trans fat with good functionality.