Sunday, July 24, 2011


Oils and fats evoke different response in different people. Policy makers world over feel fats in foods consumed by citizens make them obese and sick. Food industry and the caterers love them because oils provide flavor, texture and taste that drive customers in droves to buy their products. Nutritionists advice a balanced approach where good fats are consumed in moderation while bad fats totally avoided. On the subject of bad and good fats, most consumers are now aware that saturated long chain fatty acids and trans fats are not good for health while unsaturated fats are essential for survival. Industry has problems in using unsaturated fats because of their intrinsic property of going rancid with time.
Hydrogenation was conceived as a convenient way of stabilizing fats with double bonds so that they are not vulnerable to oxidative rancidity. Industry further discovered that hydrogenated fats assume harder texture with positive functional properties. The baking industry was once dependent on hydrogenated fats to such an extent that no baked products could be made with acceptable quality characteristics without deploying them in liberal quantities. Products like margarine and mayonnaise need hydrogenated fats and the arrival of trans fats problem had caused some set back to this industry. It is another matter that this industry was able to overcome this constraint through innovative developments in fat processing technology.
As for use of various fats for frying operation, animal fat was considered most suitable with least cost as it is a by-product of meat industry. To the bad luck of the frying industry, animal fats became the "untouchable" villain because of its cholesterol content, implicated in heart disease in humans. As almost all plant oils are unstable to heat and vulnerable to peroxidation due to their unsaturated fat content, search for better frying oils and frying technologies assumed critical importance in the past millennium. Coconut oil and Palm oil are two of the most important vegetable oils with high resistance to oxidation and rancidity as they contain relatively low levels of unsaturated fats. Use of antioxidants and minerals with high adsorption capacity for polar compounds in the frying medium, has become industry standard as far as frying oil is concerned and millions of tons of fried foods are being made using almost all oils of plant origin like soybean oil, canola, peanut oil, mustard oil, corn oil, sun flower seed oil, etc.with reasonable product stability.
Sunflower oil normally has high linoleic acid content and as such its thermal and oxidation stability is rather poor because of which it is not an ideal frying oil. Through development of better seeds by the agricultural scientists, high oleic acid containing sun flower oil is possible and same is true with Canola also. The omega-9 sunflower and canola oils are better frying oils because the tendency to form trans fats at high temperatures, encountered during frying, is arrested. Of course these versions developed by giant trans national companies are patent protected creating a virtual monopoly. It is claimed that Omega-9 sunflower oil is healthier than natural oil but such claims cannot be sustained because linoleic acid is one of the essential fatty acids required for many body functions and producing an oil with less linoleic acid from the natural oil with high levels of linoleic acid, cannot be called an improvement.
Probably availability of Omega-9 Sunflower Oil may make many food companies reduce or eliminate saturated fat from new front-of-pack labels and within a couple of years such products can be expected to be on retail shelves in countries like the US. Market savvy consumer food business players have realized that the consumers invariably prefer a saturated fat free label claim on a retail bottle of oil five to one over the same product labeled without the claim. The development of Omega-9 oil is precisely targeted at this segment of the industry. However the claim that this version of oil is natural may be some what far-fetched considering that truly natural Sunflower oil contains almost 65% polyunsaturated fatty acids including linoleic acid and is far more nutritious than the industry developed Omega-9 oil in which the same is reduced to less than 4%!. It may be possible that use of Omega-9 oil can reduce the quantity of TBHQ or other antioxidants to some extent but to say that it does not require any antioxidant to extend the life of fry oil or that of the fried products also may not bear strict scientific scrutiny.