With trans fats on the way out, Americans can expect to see new shortenings in their snack foods.
But will the replacements be any better?
In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled that partially hydrogenated oils — trans fats — must be phased out of the food supply within three years.
Manufacturers used trans fats because they are inexpensive, long-lasting and stay solid at room temperature. They’d be a great choice for cookies that may sit in a vending machine for months — except for one little problem.
“The bottom line for trans fat is it’s associated with heart disease risk,” said Ronald Krauss, Director of Atherosclerosis Research at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. “It supports the argument for taking them out of the food supply.”
Palm oil has largely replaced trans fats in food since the FDA put it on food labels almost 10 years ago. However, palm oil promotes bad cholesterol and producing it is destructive to rainforests. It’s a saturated fat, like butter. Food oil production companies are working on a better solution.
“We pay attention to nutritional sciences,” said Tom Tiffany, senior technical sales manager for ADM. “When the FDA mandated labeling in 2006, that’s really when the industry started a sea change in the oils and fats used in foods.”
In the future, customers can expect to see monounsaturated or “high oleic” oils in their foods.
“This is going to be the next trend. We’ll see our consumption of monounsaturated fats going way up,” said Eric Decker, head of the Department of Food Science at UMass Amherst. “This is the next big experiment on the United States population.”
Monounsaturated fats (oleic oils) aren’t bad for cholesterol like animal fats (saturated fat) or trans fats (partially hydrogenated). And they don’t spoil on the shelf like vegetable oils (polyunsaturated fat).
“There’s a significant amount of data to suggest the safety of monounsaturated fats,” said John Swartzberg, an internist and Chair of the Editorial Board of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. “Monounsaturated fat is shown to be associated with good health.”
Olive oil is the poster child for monounsaturated fats. When produced in large quantities, most of it comes from genetically modified sunflower, soybean and corn crops. The genetic modification ensures that these plants that produce more of the monounsaturated, oleic oils.
“We've been working on high oleic soybean oil for years. It will take a couple more years to get to the level that we want and the industry wants,” said Dilip Nakhasi, Director of Innovation for Bunge Oils, North America. “If the demand becomes more, they will plant it.”
That demand was much lower when cheap, partially hydrogenated oils were still on the table.
The sunflower crop was changed about 20 years ago to increase oleic content, with Canola oil following suit in the mid-2000s. More recently, farmers are planting high oleic soybean plants.
“One of the reasons they give a three-year window is you have to grow the crops. You have to convince the farmer. They need to know there will be a real market out there,” Decker said. “These kind of rule changes impact agriculture all the way down to the farm.”
Using oleic oils as shortening requires a way to solidify them. That can be done by combining with a fully hydrogenated oil — which does not contain trans fats — or blending with some palm oil. Food companies are improving their methods to blend oils together and mix their properties.
“It will be many pieces of the puzzle to fill the big picture,“ Tiffany said. “There’s many pieces that will be utilized by the food industry to create these functional, economically viable, nutritionally friendly fats for all the food applications that are out there.”
Even though Americans may find healthier fats and oils in their snack foods compared to a decade ago, that doesn’t mean what they're eating is suddenly good for them.
“If we’re still eating buckets full of cookies without the trans fats, we’re losing sight of what the health issue is. It’s not trans versus monounsaturated. It’s eating too much of foods that are loaded with sugars and starches with little nutritional value,” Krauss said. “I’m still concerned about the products that the fats are being taken out as much as the fats themselves.”
Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.