When New York City recently voted to phase in a ban on the use of the partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fatty acids ("trans fats") in city foodservice establishments, it was only the most high-profile development in a process that has already been underway for several years.
The tipping point probably came at the beginning of 2006, when a federal labeling law kicked in requiring packaged food makers to list trans fats. That precipitated a cascade of products with labels touting the fact that they now have "zero trans fats!"
With no labeling imperative, foodservice has been slower to surrender a product that is so economical and effective. Hydrogenated oils are shelf-stable, stand up to repeated heating and are great at giving fried foods a highly satisfying "mouth-feel".
The most common sources of trans fats in foodservice environments are fried foods and baked goods made onsite, and packaged products like snack foods, cereals and ready-to-eat baked goods.
These latter are the easiest to phase out since many manufacturers in these categories have already eliminated, or are in the process of eliminating, trans fats from their products due to the retail labeling requirement.
For fry oils and onsite baking applications, however, there's really no single good alternative because each candidate has a downside, in price, performance and/or health profile.
In baking, the choice basically comes down to using shortenings high in either trans fats or saturated fats because the healthier mono and polyunsaturated fats don't provide the requisite performance.
"Most of the bakers we're talking to are replacing margarines with butter," says Heather Henstock of Modern Baking magazine. "They are also using oils and shortenings that contain palm oils—which, yes, have more saturated fat."
For a fry oil alternative, one option oil manufacturers have explored is simply to fully (rather than partially) hydrogenate vegetable oils. This eliminates almost all the trans fat content, but it produces a substance that is basically all saturated fat. Furthermore, fully hydrogenated oils are thick as a brick, hard, waxy lumps better suited to building walls than frying chicken strips.
Tinkering with Compromises
Manufacturers can get around this by cutting the hard hydrogenated substance with liquid oils to soften it, but this dilutes the usable life and performance of the product.
That's because liquid oils, which are primarily polyunsaturates, are highly unstable, says Dr. Gerald McNeill, R&D director at oil supplier Loders Croklaan USA. "Polyunsaturates degrade very rapidly when exposed to high heat for extended periods [such as in a fryer]," he explains. "The flavor and color start to go off and it becomes thick and viscous."
This is why oils high in polyunsaturates are unsuitable for volume commercial frying applications unless you want to keep changing the oil.
Monosaturate-heavy oils, on the other hand, are very stable and hold up well under these conditions. Unfortunately, they are also very expensive because the oleic content of the seed the oil is drawn from must be genetically modified to produce more oleic acid and fewer polyunsaturates, McNeill explains.
This is an expensive, timeconsuming process, though some producers have successfully developed proprietary hybrid "high-oleic" varieties of seeds like canola and sunflower. Down the line, market forces may incent the development and mass-production of such products.
More economic short-term alternatives include old saturated fat standbys like lard and beef tallow but, obviously, they would be a tough sell to customers.
A similar PR challenge surrounds palm and polyunsaturated oil blends. Palm oil by itself is an excellent fry oil but, like the animal fats, it is highly saturated (though cholesterol-free).
Still, manufacturers continue to tinker with various palm/ polyunsaturated oil blends. The problem is that the greater the ratio of palm oil in the blend, the greater the saturated fat content, and the greater the ratio of polyunsatuarates, the less stable it is.
So, is there a perfect solution? Fat chance! –Mike Buzalka