The skinny on healthier fats and oils
Canada’s food industry has made good progress with reducing “bad fats,” but still has room for improvement
Research & Development
Most of us in the food industry well recall the creation of the Trans Fat Task Force in 2006, co-chaired by Health Canada and the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation. The task force recommended that trans fats be limited to five per cent or less of total fat in all products sold to Canadian consumers – two per cent for margarines and spreads. To ensure that industry made adequate progress in meeting these recommendations, Health Canada set up a Trans Fat Monitory Program (TFMP). It also created plans to impose regulations on industry in 2009, but backed off due to the progress being made, and noted in early 2012 that three-quarters of pre-packaged foods under review met trans fats reduction targets.
According to Health Canada, the estimated trans fat intake of average Canadians is now less than 1.42 per cent of total calories consumed, which is close to the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of one per cent. Researchers reported in the April 2013 issue of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization that for most food products available in North America – but not baked goods or popcorn – trans fats have been replaced by mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Total fat levels have tended to remain the same.
These changes are some of the many factors that have contributed to a 40-per-cent decrease in heart disease and stroke-related deaths over the last decade, notes Carol Dombrow, a dietitian with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. “The biggest factors are improvements in detection of problems, control of blood pressure, advances in diagnosis and treatment. Things like less smoking and more exercise also play a role, as does healthier eating.”
Even so, Carol Culhane believes we should be seeing much better results. “Levels of trans fats in some foods are still too high,” notes the owner of Toronto-based consulting firm International Food Focus Ltd. “Total calorie intake is also a factor in overall health and obesity, and further government and industry action into further reducing trans fat and saturated fat levels in food is needed. Saturated fat has not received the attention it needs.”
Health Canada does not seem concerned, stating that Canada is estimated to have already achieved an average saturated fat intake close to 10 per cent of total calories consumed, the WHO target. And for its part, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada says the focus of its current recommendations to the food industry is on reducing trans fat and sodium before saturated fat. However, saturated fat remains a risk factor in heart disease and stroke, and many studies suggest that saturated fat also negatively affects brain health. For example, results of a multi-year study on 6,000 women aged 65 and over, recently published in the journal Annals of Neurology, show that those who consume more saturated fat scored worse on cognitive function tests than those who ate less of it.
New oils to the rescue
The good news is that it is getting easier for food producers to reduce both trans fats and saturated fats. The use of sunflower oil – trans-fat free, not genetically modified, and possessing a longer shelf life than most oils – has expanded to a wide array of snack applications, says John Sandbakken, executive director of the U.S.-based National Sunflower Association. “Sunflower oil has a lower saturated fat content (nine per cent) than many other oils, and is classified by Health Canada as ‘low in saturated fat,’” he notes. ‘High oleic’ sunflower oil contains a high percentage of monounsaturated fat, which Sandbakken says may reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity.
Indeed, Dow AgroSciences, the maker of Omega-9 canola oil, is working on a sunflower oil that will qualify for the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) ‘zero saturated fat’ claim. Dow’s grains and oils commercial leader David Dzisiak says it will hit the market within a couple of years. “It will be ideal for high-fat content products, such as cooking oil, salad dressings and mayonnaise,” he says, “the first oil that will allow manufacturers to offer products with zero trans fat and zero saturated fat.”
Dzisiak says there is also interest in creating zero-saturated fat canola oil. “Use of canola oil in North America has gone up 100 per cent in the last five years as hydrogenated oils are being phased out,” he notes. “Our Omega-9 canola oil contains a high level of monounsaturated fat and is trans-fat free. It’s cost-effective, highly stable for freshness and provides good taste, meeting the needs of a large spectrum of the food industry.” Dow’s Omega-9 oil is sometimes blended with palm oil, allowing food companies to reduce product saturated fat content by up to 50 per cent.
Omega-9 canola oil replaced quantities of corn, sunflower and low linolenic soybean oil in PepsiCo Canada’s Lay’s potato chips in early 2010, and many of its corn snack products in early 2011. “A lot of other packaged food companies across North America have also switched to Omega-9,” Dzisiak says. “And foodservice companies such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Red Lobster and Olive Garden have also done so.” High oleic Omega-9 canola oil offers additional benefits, such as a higher smoke point and longer fry life. Viterra recently launched verraUltra9 canola oil, which is the first non-GMO (genetically modified) Omega-9 canola oil in North America. It also offers an extended fry life and shelf life.
Seed and oil company Cargill developed Clear Valley 65 High Oleic Canola Oil and Clear Valley 75 High Oleic Canola Oil in the early 1990s. “Cargill’s Clear Valley CV65 is primarily used as frying oil in foodservice operations delivering high stability and a clean taste,” says Rick Wiebe, Cargill’s specialty seeds and oils marketing manager. The company has since developed Clear Valley 80 High Oleic Canola Oil, which it says has the highest oleic acid content and stability of any high oleic canola oil. Recently, Cargill partnered with BASF Plant Science to develop a new canola oil with EPA and DHA omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Cargill says this oil will be available for use in food products by the end of the decade.