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The Future of Fats and Oils

CHICAGO — It was Jan. 4, 1989, when The Keebler Co. announced it would eliminate saturated fatty acid-rich tropical oils derived from coconut and palm, as well as lard, from its cookies, crackers and snack foods. Other companies followed in an effort to make the products more heart healthy. The irony is that the fats were replaced with trans fats, which have since been deemed unhealthy and phased out by the Food and Drug Administration.

Jump ahead 25 years to the June 23, 2014, issue of Time and its “Ending the War on Fat” cover story. The article launched other media claims such as “fat is back” and “fat is no longer the enemy,” and perhaps set the stage for the butter board trend of this holiday season. Today, simple carbohydrates, namely sugars, bear the burden of being widely associated with an increased risk of obesity and diabetes, not fat. While fat may be back, product developers must not forget fats and oils vary in fatty acid profiles. Keebler’s motivation to replace saturated fats more than 30 years ago still holds true. Science suggests eating too much saturated fat may raise the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood, and elevated LDL cholesterol levels are associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

While saturated fats are not the focus of current nutrition headlines, it is bound to become an issue in the future, especially with tropical oils having found their way back into many products. They also have become the base ingredients for many plant-based meat and dairy alternatives.

The AHA recommends a dietary pattern that sources 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat. A person who consumes about 2,000 calories a day, for example, should not consume more than 120 calories from saturated fat. That’s about 13 grams per day and not much when one considers the many sources. Coconut oil is the No. 2 ingredient (after water) in a plant-based bacon currently in the marketplace. Compared to pork bacon, the product is said to contain 65% fewer calories and 75% less fat; however, the 2.5 grams of fat in each slice is 80% saturated fat. That’s 2 grams of saturated fat in one slice, about the same as in pork bacon (6.2 grams of fat, of which 2.1 grams is saturated, according to the US Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database).

Saturated fats are concentrated in many keto foods. That’s because coconut oil, along with palm kernel oil and dairy fat (butter), are all concentrated sources of medium-chain triglycerides, or simply MCT, a component of keto diet-formulated foods. MCTs are saturated fats with molecular characteristics that allow them to behave differently inside the body compared to other fats. A difference is they bypass traditional digestion and become an instant energy source following consumption. In other words, the body starts to burn it faster than other fats. Keto dieters are ignoring the AHA guidelines on saturated fat intake. As a result, many nutritionists emphasize keto diets are a short-term weight-loss program, not a long-term eating regimen. It may be a matter of time before this becomes a media topic.

Blending fats is a way for formulators to improve the fatty acid profile of a food product. As a result, blending is trending in the butter-based spread category. Challenge Dairy Products Inc., Dublin, Calif., offers a spreadable butter with avocado oil. A source of monounsaturated fatty acids, avocado oil also makes the spread soft right out of the refrigerator.

Avocado oil is pressed from the avocado fruit, similar to how olive oil is obtained from olives. The two oils are are similar in nutrition profile, with both being good sources of monounsaturated fatty acids, which are associated with reducing LDL cholesterol and increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also known as “good” cholesterol.

“People are looking for high-quality dairy products that meet their needs and lifestyles now more than ever,” said Michael Burdeny, president of Challenge.

Alternative fat solutions

Fat replacement technologies, a product of the fat-free craze of the 1990s when fat was perceived as bad, have come a long way from creating fat-like gel systems with microcrystalline cellulose to replace oil in products such as salad dressings. Epogee LLC, Indianapolis, markets a modified plant-based oil that reduces calories from fat and total calories in foods. The ingredient helps manufacturers formulate products without sacrificing taste or texture, and without causing adverse side effects, across a variety of categories, including plant-based meats, chocolate confections, nut butters, salty and savory snacks, and baked foods, said David Rowe, founder and president.

“We’re not out to eliminate all fat,” Mr. Rowe said. “Fat is required for a healthy diet; we want to eliminate the calories that come with consuming too many fat calories.”

Protected by more than 20 patents, Epogee’s fat alternative is formulated with rapeseed oil. The triglyceride is split into its components: the glycerol backbone and three fatty acids. The technology involves inserting a food-grade propoxyl link, which resists digestive enzyme action, to reconnect the glycerol and fatty acids. It is labeled as EPG (modified plant-based oil).

EPG was designed to work in any application containing fat. Depending on the formulation, EPG can eliminate up to 92% of calories from fat and 45% of total calories per serving, with the higher the fat or oil content, the greater the reduction in calories. It does not deplete fat-soluble vitamins in the body or limit their absorption.

Like other neutral vegetable-based fats, such as vegetable oil, EPG takes on the flavor of the product. It is environmentally friendly as it decomposes like other fats and oils. Because EPG has a melting point of 102° F, it remains solid at body temperature when consumed. This feature helps avoid the gastrointestinal side effects that some people experienced with other fat substitutes formerly on the market.

One of the newest products to enter the market using EPG comes from Gatsby Chocolate, Chicago. The better-for-you milk and dark chocolate bars have less than half the calories of regular chocolate bars and about one-quarter of the sugar.

Some consumers have been seeking chocolate that tastes great without derailing their quest for a healthier lifestyle, according to the company. Until now, chocolate makers were limited to sugar substitution as a source of calorie reduction. Epogee’s alternative fat opens a new avenue of better-for-you formulation, Mr. Rowe said.

Cubiq Foods, Madrid, Spain, also is a player in the alternative fat space. Founded in late 2018, the company by mid-2021 launched an ingredient that is an emulsion of vegetable oil (20%) and water (40% to 50%). It is stabilized with vegan ingredients and formulated to replace the fatty acid component in processed foods, most notably, coconut oil in plant-based meats. Other applications include dairy alternatives, sauces, bakery, confectionery and vegan food products. The vegetable oil emulsion has an adjustable melting point. It functions like an animal fat in terms of visual appearance, bite and mouthfeel, according to the company.

Cubiq Foods also is planning to launch microencapsulated omega-3 oils. The multilayer microencapsulation protects the concentrated essential oils, maintaining their properties without any of the fish flavors. This process may help food manufacturers to deliver recommended daily levels of omega-3, according to the company.

In early 2023, the company plans to launch its first cultivated fat-based ingredient for food applications in the US market. It is intended to more closely replicate the taste and texture of traditional meat in plant-based food alternatives. BioVeritas, Bryan, Texas, is a bio-based ingredients company with a proprietary process that upcycles underutilized and excess biomass from the food and agricultural industries into short- and medium-chain fatty acids through a self-regulating natural ecosystem of microorganisms. The ecosystem mimics what occurs in the human and animal gastrointestinal tracts. BioVeritas recovers the organic acids without the use of solvents and its process is a closed loop, according to the company.

“Petrochemicals are part of nearly every aspect of our lives, including our global food supply,” said David Austgen, CEO. “Our mission is to decarbonize the global human and animal food, feed and gut health industries by replacing petrochemical ingredients with highly efficacious plant-based natural equivalents, thereby contributing to a healthier population and a more sustainable planet.”

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