Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between Donald E. Pszczola | June 2012, Volume 66, No.6


Fats have had a long and evolving history: the popular use of lard, the recommendations of margarine over butter, the fat-replacement craze of the early nineties when carbohydrate-based alternatives to fat were in the spotlight, the rapid transition away from trans fats, the rise of omega-3 fatty acids and other better-for you lipids, and renewed attention to the reduction of saturated fats were just a few of the milestones that could be identified along the lipid lane.An increased understanding of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids will lead to the development—and subsequent pouring—of new lipid solutions.

And even now fats are entering into a new—and somewhat complicated—chapter. It would be tempting, at this stage, to try to simplify the issues and say something about replacing less healthful fats with more healthful ones. But that would be too simple, although it has certainly become a common approach. Rather, it’s more about trying to find a balance between the different kinds of fats. Or more precisely, those that have been dubbed “bad” vs those that are called “good.” And, especially as we consider lipid chemistry, those that are somewhere in between.

As part of a general philosophy of life, words such as “good” and “bad” are frequently oversimplifications in any case. But when talking about lipid chemistry—about fats and oils actually being made up of combinations of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids—they can be particularly misleading. And keep in mind that we’re not just talking about nutritional profiles here. A fat may have the right properties in that respect, but may have stability issues or other functionality challenges to overcome. And so “good” may become “bad” and “bad” may become “good.” Which is why, when talking about fats, words such as “bad” and “good” should probably be stricken from the vocabulary; the true answers, both from nutritional and functionality viewpoints, lie somewhere in between.

Formulators—and their ingredient suppliers—know this, of course, which is why there are so many exciting developments being created at this time. For example, techniques such as enzymatic interesterification can redesign the oil molecule, providing a desirable melting profile or other functionality that otherwise would be lacking. This process can be used to rearrange fatty acids within an oil or in blends with other oils including fully hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils to produce a range of products with reduced trans levels or none. Furthermore, the sophisticated blending of different oils or fat fractions—and the increased functionality benefits this approach offers—add a new dimension to the perception of fats and oils as an ingredients category.

Through traditional breeding or advancements from biotechnology, compositional traits within a bean or seed can be enhanced to produce healthier oils with improved functionality characteristics. High-oleic oils—derived from sunflower, canola, soybean, and other plants—are being developed that can offer increased heat and oxidative stability compared to previous oils. Ingredient companies are forming collaborations to create next-generation plant-derived oils that provide long-chain omega-3s typically found in fish oil products.

And talk about in between: one development, a microalgae-derived ingredient described as an “algal flour” is not what you would call a traditional lipid, but it’s not really a flour either. It contains more than 50% lipids and about one-third carbohydrates.

It’s interesting but many compare bad fats vs good fats with the perception of good carbs vs bad carbs. But, at least in my opinion, this present stage of fat’s evolution is actually more influenced by another ingredient area: that of the sweeteners and the synergistic blends that have been and are being created. As that earlier approach suggested, there is no one magic bullet, no one sweetener that is necessarily better—from a health or functionality perspective—than another. Their “sweet” secret was in learning how they perform in a particular formula, especially in combination with each other. In the same way, I think the following developments will suggest that no one fat will offer a magic bullet, but rather when used together—saturated with unsaturated—can offer some very innovative solutions.

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