Hearts and Palm: How Will the Food Industry Replace Trans Fats?
November 25, 2013
Sustainability Advisor Arlin Wasserman discusses the FDA’s declaration that trans fats are no longer generally recognized as safe.
One of the biggest events in the nutrition community over the past few weeks has been the announcement that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now considers partially hydrogenated vegetable oil are no longer generally recognized as safe. A host of illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, are associated with eating “trans fats,” which are created when industrial processes are used to change the thickness and melting point of oils and fats.
Ahead of the game
While the FDA’s action might be newsworthy, the science behind it is hardly new to the culinary community and the food industry. The basic science around trans fats has been understood for nearly a decade. During that time, chefs and food companies have worked to eliminate 85% of them from our menus and diets. Many foods now contain only small amounts of trans fats, if at all, while SPE certified recipes contain no trans fats.
But nutrition advice and sustainability concerns now are converging as we figure out how to eliminate the last 15% of hydrogenated oil from the food supply, where it resides in small amounts in a host of foods that use thickened and modified oils and solid shortenings like refrigerated doughs, crackers, cakes and cookies, commercial oils used for deep frying, and artificial creamers and dairy replacements.
Those small amounts add up to between 15 and 30 million tons per year of shortening and other hydrogenated fats consumed in the US. Much of it comes from soy oil, which represents the harvest from about about 4 million acres of farmland now planted in soy .
What’s to be used instead?
Figuring out how to replace remaining hydrogenated fats in a host of processed foods is a major challenge, with a few early ideas emerging. Work is underway to breed new soybeans that have high concentrations of oleic fatty acids, which would eliminate the need to hydrogenate oil. There’s urgency among soybean producers to make this happen before food manufacturers permanently switch to other ingredients. But large-scale production isn’t forecast to start for at least a couple growing seasons, ramping up through 2023.
The quicker fix being discussed among some large food manufacturers include switching from hydrogenated oil to palm kernel oil, also known as palm oil, which is also solid at room temperature. Palm oil the most widely traded edible oil in the world and already produced in many tropical regions, with production centered in Indonesia and Malaysia and growing in Brazil. While the switch would be in line with expected FDA guidelines, nutrition researchers understand many believe palm oil has many similar health concerns.
Switching to palm oil would significantly boost demand above the 50 million tons produced each year. After the ban was announced, Malaysia, the world’s second largest producer after Indonesia, quickly predicted exports would double.
Is palm oil sustainable?
But the growth of palm oil production is one of the leading causes of tropical deforestation in the world, and the burning of forests to clear land for new plantations a major contributor to global warming. The damage to the local and global environment has become so severe that some of the world’s largest private equity firms have banned investment in the industry. Some companies have made a commitment to ensuring their palm oil supply is responsibly produced, but expect the work to take many years while other companies are still working on simply understanding their supply chains and are facing protests from consumers and shareholders alike.
The best way to deliver health and sustainability through food is not just looking for another ingredient to replace industrially processed fats. Taste matters and so does optimal nutrition, which makes the work of eliminating trans fats a culinary challenge to invent new and better recipes. The SPE certification system recognizes some restaurants and food companies that have made this more significant, and delicious, change. With the FDA’s new ruling, hopefully more will make this better choice for our palates and the planet.
How do you see the food industry replacing trans fats? Share your thoughts below:
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