What’s a healthy way to replace trans fats in our food?

Why is healthy palm oil now used in so many different types of food products? It might be a direct, or indirect, result of recommendations from the Fatty Acid Expert Roundtable, a multi-disciplinary panel of nutrition and clinical experts who convened a few years ago to discuss what they would recommend to food manufacturers for replacing trans fats. Of specific concern were efforts to reduce or eliminate trans fatty acids in baked goods, without sacrificing product functionality, taste and shelf life. No surprise: Palm fruit oil (palmitic acid) emerged as a solution.

The highly respected experts, including physicians and researchers from Harvard Medical School, Stanford University and Brandeis University, looked at options that were superior for human health. Some of the panel’s key consensus statements included:

• Replacing trans fats with either palmitic acid or interesterified stearic acid is expected to reduce cardiovascular risk factors.

• Where possible, the selection of oils or fats to replace trans fatty acids should favor polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acids.

• Where a solid fat is required for product taste and functionality, the only saturated fatty options currently available to replace trans fatty acids are palm oil or interesterified stearic acid.

Among the participating experts was KC Hayes, DVM, Ph.D. and Professor of Biology (Nutrition) at Brandies University. He has stated, “Most people don’t know that Malaysian palm oil comes from the flesh of the palm oil fruit, much like olive oil comes from the flesh of the olive. Not only is Malaysian palm oil a cholesterol-free vegetable oil, but it contains more polyunsaturated fatty acids than coconut oil, for example, and thus it is better at lowering your LDL cholesterol.”

Food producers, especially those who market baked goods such as pre-packaged cookies and cakes, need an oil that does not break down at high temperatures, and that is shelf stable for long periods of time. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are unstable in that regard, so liquid oils do not work well.

For years, trans-fats were used for this purpose until the public became aware of their health hazards. Many food producers have now switched to soybean oil that has been loaded with hydrogen (a process called hydrogenation to make them ‘fully saturated’ with hydrogen) to stabilize the molecules. “Fully hydrogenated soybean oil has the consistency of candle wax – which is not handled normally by the body, even if stable on the shelf. It is legally fat but it is not natural or normal,” says Dr. Hayes.

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