Fats and oils are no longer four-letter words for consumers. More and more, shoppers are factoring nutrition and sustainability into their decisions about which fats and oils they want to see—or not see—on food and beverage labels.
Consumer attitudes about fats have shifted significantly from the days when they were all tarred with the same brush. Most global consumers now say that the amount of fat (70%) and the type of oil (67%) are important factors in determining which packaged foods to buy, reports Cargill’s 2020 FATitudes survey, with olive, avocado, and coconut oils tops for impact on purchase and perceptions of healthfulness. In addition, nearly two-thirds (61%) of U.S. consumers report avoiding certain fats or oils.
“As in past surveys, Cargill found consumers track fats and oils by closely reading labels on packaged food, and what they learn helps guide their purchasing decisions,” says Jamie Mavec, marketing manager at Cargill. “A ‘no saturated fat’ claim is the most influential, with 53% of consumers in 2020 saying they are more likely to purchase these products.”
In addition, when asked which calorie sources were most likely to cause weight gain, just 16% of survey respondents chose fats compared with 24% for both sugars and carbohydrates, according to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2020 Food & Health Survey.
Trending interest in high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets is another driver of evolving consumer willingness to move past old attitudes about the healthfulness of fats and oils. A ketogenic or high-fat diet was the third-most popular among the 43% of Americans who followed a specific diet or eating pattern in the past year, behind only intermittent fasting and clean eating, according to IFIC’s 2020 Food & Health Survey. In fact, the global ketogenic diet market is projected to grow from $10.2 million in 2019 to $15.3 million by 2027, a compound annual growth rate of 5.3%, reports The Insight Partners market research firm.
“Fats and oils are functional and necessary ingredients across applications, from baking, frying, emulsions, and more. The foods we consume are evolving to include plant-based food systems, tailored nutrition, and a focus on clean label and sustainable ingredients,” says Michelle Peitz, who works in technical solutions and marketing at ADM Oilseeds. “With these changes come different demands for oil ingredients. Formulators have to be prepared to satisfy these demands as they strive to create great-tasting products.”
Even as consumers become more open to focusing on the nutritional and health benefits of fats and oils, they are narrowing their requirements for what they consider an acceptable level of sustainability for ingredients in food products. Already, 59% of consumers say it is important that the foods they purchase or consume are produced in an environmentally sustainable way, according to the IFIC survey, and the percentage of consumers who say environmental sustainability has a real impact on their purchases is up from 27% in 2019 to 34% in 2020.
“Intense public pressure and corporate concerns regarding agricultural impacts on the environment and improvements to sustainable practices will dominate the oils and fats landscape for many years to come,” says Susan Knowlton, senior research manager at Corteva Agriscience.
Michelle French, director, global sustainability programs at ADM, says that “the greatest change we’ve seen in formulations hasn’t been which ingredient is used, but rather the focus on how that ingredient is sourced. . . . There is a recent shift in demand for more transparent and traceable fats and oils,” she says. “For instance, if an oil solution can be traced through the supply chain to the field it was grown, companies can conduct due diligence to make sure that commodity was sourced in a sustainable and responsible manner. We continue to see market demand for certified fats and oils, such as Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (see sidebar on page 44) and Round Table on Responsible Soy.”
“Sustainable ingredients are important to consumers, especially in terms of where and how the ingredients were grown,” agrees John Jansen, vice president of strategic partnerships at United Soybean Board. He says some ingredient companies have made this a priority and direct consumers’ attention to the sustainability of their supply chain with labels such as the Sustainable U.S. Soy Mark.
Some formulators are also responding to consumer demand for sustainability and clean labels by utilizing expeller (mechanically) pressed oils in addition to non-GM and organic oils, says Jennifer Tesch, chief marketing officer at Healthy Food Ingredients. “The growth of sustainability and traceability, driven by consumer demand, will continue to evolve,” she says.
The mushrooming $7 billion U.S. plant-based foods market, which has seen 43% sales growth in the past two years, according to the Plant Based Foods Association, continues to create new challenges for formulators. Fats and oils are integral in formulating textural and flavor aspects to help these plant-forward foods mimic the traditional eating experience of animal-based products, says ADM’s Peitz.
“In meat alternatives, fat sources are used for food fortification or adding essential nutrients, creating succulence by replicating the ‘juicy’ experience associated with animal-derived meat, as well as adding to the texture,” says Cargill’s Mavec. “In dairy alternatives, fats and oils provide critical solids that promote favorable texture, sensory, and mouthfeel.”
Consumers also have certain attributes they’re looking for in plant-based foods, so formulators need to balance both form and function in the fats and oils they use for these products.
“In keeping with the expectations of plant-based food consumers, plant-based foods tend to be clean label and derived from sustainable sources,” says Jeffrey Fine, senior director, customer innovation at AAK, which offers the AkoVeg line of fats for plant-based applications. “This means that the fats and oils used in plant-based foods must comply with these expectations as well.”
Oil blends can help meet formulation challenges for some plant-based dairy alternatives. “Custom oil blends are . . . helpful in creating butter alternatives,” says Peitz. “For example, palm and soy or palm and canola blends have the functionality of shortening and can reduce saturates by up to 20%.” For a plant-based coffee creamer, “we can create the desired look and mouthfeel . . . by incorporating sunflower, soybean, coconut, palm, and rapeseed or canola oils into the formulation,” she adds.
New ways to structure liquid oils for use in plant-based applications that require solidity continue to be developed, says Knowlton. That includes the incorporation of blends with solid sources of fat and/or specialized emulsifiers, processing techniques such as interesterification, and new methods not yet commercialized, such as the use of oleogels and oleofoams.
Knowlton says a recent journal article described an oleogel application in which high oleic oils were used to simulate pork fat in bologna sausage without a negative impact on taste or functionality.
The World Health Organization is aiming to phase out industrially produced trans fat from the global food supply by 2023, and on Jan. 1, 2021, the United States hit its final compliance date for manufacturers to stop adding partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) to food, following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 2015 determination that PHOs were no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). The disappearance of added trans fat has been good news for heart health but has also created formulation issues, especially for stability.
“Partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) were inherently stable in formulations and easy for customers to store and use. With many replacement options, some of the functionality—especially around shelf-life stability, plasticity, and shortening storage—became more complex,” says John Satumba, global bakery technical lead and regional R&D director for North America, global edible oil solutions, at Cargill, which in 2019 introduced PalmAgility, a palm-based shortening that is more temperature tolerant, has greater plasticity, and stores easily.
“Since FDA revoked GRAS status of PHOs, the food industry has relied on several other fat/oil formulations, depending on the functionality they are looking for. These include high stability oils, fully hydrogenated oils, and interesterified oils, among others,” says Knowlton.
The FDA’s trans fat action “seemed to open a new door for soybean-based interesterified shortenings, which are now available and can be used as a drop-in replacement for the banned partially hydrogenated shortenings in bakery applications like cookies, pies, cakes, and icings,” says Dennis Strayer, United Soybean Board oils consultant. “The use of high oleic soybean oil has also been growing as a replacement for the partially hydrogenated soybean oil used in frying applications.”
High oleic oils, which are also known as high stability oils and contain high levels of monounsaturated fats, are just a decade old and came into prominence as a substitute for PHOs containing trans fat, says Knowlton.
“Initial use of these oils was mostly in liquid applications, such as frying and spray oils, but has since been used in solid fat applications that require additional structuring or processing to provide the necessary functional and textural properties,” she says.
Knowlton adds that “foods made with commodity oils often require additional preservatives because the high level of polyunsaturated fatty acids leads to instability over time. Because of their unique composition, high oleic oils can be up to two to three times more stable under oxidative conditions compared to commodity oils.”
“There is a renewed interest in extending shelf life, and this can be accomplished by either using high stability oils such as high oleic sunflower or high oleic safflower oil where possible, or by using natural antioxidants,” agrees AAK’s Fine.