Since the FDA revoked the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status of PHOs, or trans fats, in the summer of 2015, the clock is ticking for food companies to remove the ingredient from their products.
The final deadline is June 18, 2018 for manufacturers to ensure that their products no longer contain PHOs for uses that have not been authorized by FDA. Health Canada recently proposed a Canadian deadline in the same year.
A popular replacement ingredient has been sunflower oil, according to John Sandbakken, the executive director of the National Sunflower Association.
“With the approaching deadline for a ban on PHOs, we have noticed domestic consumption increase from 433 million pounds to 510 million pounds, an increase in sales of 18% in sunflower oil,” he told FoodNavigator-USA. The extracted numbers reflect sales in the 12 months ending Oct. 4, 2017.
Replacing PHOs not as easy in bakery sector
Research and development activity on oils and fats has increased in the past 15 years since published studies linked partially hydrogenated oils to cardiovascular health risk, according to Diliara Iassonova, innovation director at Cargill, who provided a brief history on the shift away from PHOs during a press junket in Bismarck, ND, organized by the National Sunflower Association this summer.
Early adopters of PHO substitutes such as high oleic sunflower, canola, or soy were in the snacks industry. “For the snack industry, you can basically fry in any oil. The only problem here is that you still need to address cost [and] shelf life expectations,” she said. Then foodservice followed.
Last to follow suit was the bakery sector. “The reason is, for bakery, they use PHOs not only for cost, shelf-life, and stability, but they also needed the functionality of a hard, structured fat,” she explained.
“Processors who need solid fats in their formulations are considering a blend of sunflower oil and other non-hydrogenated fats,” Sandbakken added.
The shift away from PHOs has also sparked more business for texturizer and emulsifier makers, as bakery manufacturers blend these ingredients with fats like sunflower oil to create the structure they need.
From palm to soy: A list of contenders
Sunflower oil competes with many other plant-derived oil sources as a PHO replacer, but Sandbakken believes it has an edge.
“If a food manufacturer is currently using PHOs for bakery products then the main competition is solid fats, such as palm oil. If a food manufacturer or foodservice operator is using PHOs in a fry application, canola or soybean oil might be selected as a replacement,” he said.
“However, both of these oils contain omega-3 which makes them less stable and they may not last as long in a fryer,” he added. Then there are the ethical concerns surrounding palm oil and the environmental devastation to palm-growing areas the industry allegedly brings.
The NSA has been raising awareness around the benefits of sunflower oil through webinars, advertising, and direct communication to key technical staff at food companies.
An uptick in the sunflower oil business will benefit the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Colorado, which have the most acreage of sunflower grown for oil in the US.
According to data from the NSA, in the past two years, US farmers have produced about 2.4 billion pounds of seed on 1.5 million acres for oil production. Domestic sales represent about $275 million and exports are $50 million dollars for a total of $325 million dollars.
There are over 20,000 sunflower farmers and about 300 jobs in sunflower oil manufacturing.