There will be pressure from some corners to give the food industry several years to phase out partially hydrogenated oils, but from a technical perspective, viable alternatives are already out there for pretty much every application, according to one leading oils and fats supplier.
Tim Surin, director of sales and marketing at palm oil specialist IOI Loders Croklaan Americas, was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after the FDA made a preliminary determination that PHOs are not GRAS.
He said: “I expect there will probably be requests for an extension to the 60-day comment period [that the FDA has given stakeholders to respond to its proposal], but the market is already very well versed in what the alternatives are, and after a while, it starts to become an academic discussion.”
The industry has been “working on this for a very long time”, he added, with pressure ramping up significantly since 2006 after firms were required to list trans fat content on the Nutrition Facts panel.
Who’s still using partially hydrogenated oils?
Firms still using PHOs largely fall into three categories, he said.
1 - Smaller firms that haven’t gotten around to reformulating.
2 - Smaller foodservice companies who have avoided reformulating because they not under the same kind of scrutiny as packaged food companies. This is particularly the case with frying oils where some firms have been reluctant to pay extra for trans-free high oleic oils. Whether those that haven’t yet made the switch will opt for the next generation of trans-free high oleic soybean oils or try palm instead (which is used as a frying oil in a lot of Asian countries) will depend on multiple factors, he said.
3 - Firms that have changed recipes and reduced PHOs enough to meet the criteria for a 0g trans fat claim on pack but are still using some PHOs (but not enough to hit the 0.5g/serving legal threshold that triggers labeling).
Which PHO alternatives firms will choose depends on the application, he said, but "there is a whole suite of solutions out there” from switching back to butter (which some cookie makers have done), to using interesterified oils (where the structure of oils is chemically or enzymatically re-arranged to make them more sold or stable), to using blends of palm fractions and domestic oils such as soy and canola; high oleic canola; mid-oleic sunflower; or the next generation of high-oleic soybean oils.
Fully hydrogenated oils: There’s the science, and then there’s the perception…
Meanwhile, fully hydrogenated oils - which do not create any trans fats - provided a useful addition to the trans-free toolkit, but have not been widely adopted by industry because of the perception that ‘hydrogenation’ per se is a bad thing, he added.
“There’s the science, and then there’s the perception. Many companies just don’t want the word ‘hydrogenated’ on pack, and they are avoiding it altogether.”
Coconut oil or cottonseed oil can also be part of the formulator’s toolbox, he said, but price and supply can be volatile, and further processing (eg. hydrogenation) can be required to get the right melting point for certain applications.
Saturated fat - not the nutritional bogeyman it was once claimed to be?
But what about saturated fat? Won't more switching to products high in palm oil (which naturally contains 40-50% saturated fat) just create new problems?
The American Soybean Association, for example, has just warned that if the FDA were to finalize its determination to revoke the GRAS status of partially hydrogenated oils, food processors “may be pressured to replace remaining PHOs with those high in saturated fat such as palm or coconut oils, which would not be a good outcome for consumers”.
However, saturated fat is not the nutritional bogeyman it was once thought to be, insisted Surin.
Meanwhile, palm oil also contains unsaturated fats, which largely comprise monounsaturated fats that tend to lower LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) without also lowering HDL (‘good’ cholesterol), he noted, while palm oil also contains beneficial antioxidants and carotenoids.
“What really matters is not total cholesterol, but the ratio of LDL ['bad'] to HDL ['good'] cholesterol.”
Saturated fat and heart health
The sea change in attitudes to saturated fat can be traced back to 2010 following the publication of a high-profile meta-analysis (click here ) led by Ronald Krauss in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) which found “no significant evidence … that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease”, he said.
A year later, Dr Pramod Khosla, associate professor at the department of nutrition and food science at Wayne State University in Detroit, told delegates at the IFT show in New Orleans (click here ): “Saturated fat per se is not really doing anything when it comes to cardiovascular disease risk. What’s more crucial is to look at what people are replacing it with [click here ].”
However, if customers are concerned about saturated fat levels, Loders Croklaan offers several trans-free products that enable firms using palm oil to keep saturates down, for example by using palm oil in combination with more liquid veg oils such as canola or soy, said Surin.
Palm oil and sustainability
But what about the sustainability issue? If palm-oil based products present the best technical solutions for many baked goods, and are more widely used as a result of the FDA PHO crackdown, what will this mean for the environment?
The challenges of creating a sustainable palm oil supply are well documented , he said, and an enormous amount of work still needs to be done.
However, IOI Loders Croklaan - which owns some plantations in key growing regions as well as operating refineries - has made a lot of progress in mapping its supply chain to determine exactly where the palm oil it supplies to US customers is coming from, and is working towards offering more mass balance options (which combine regular palm oil and certified sustainable palm oil), he said.
Ultimately, players that are more vertically integrated will be at the forefront of change, he predicted.
Click here to read the FDA’s preliminary determination - which does not affect trans fats that occur naturally in some meat and dairy products.