Later this year, the US’ food watchdog will impose a complete ban on the inclusion of partially hydrogenated oils in food for human consumption. It’s a bold move from a country regarded as having a ‘lighter touch’ when it comes to food legislation, and where industry usually calls the regulatory shots – but could we face a similar ban in Britain?
As attention focuses on a post-Brexit trade settlement, it’s perhaps only a couple of steps before we see either a UK-US food policy alignment or some degree of regulatory alignment with future EU legislation. What would it mean for foodservice companies?
From June, US food will have to be completely free of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), otherwise known as trans fats. They’re a type of unsaturated fat, linked to cardiovascular disease. In the US, it’s the culmination of a legislative process that started back in 2006, when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required all food labels to declare their trans fat content. That was, in turn, in response to a World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation advising that trans fats should make up no more than 1% of overall energy intake.
By 2013, FDA formally changed its view of trans fats and revoked their "Generally Recognised As Safe" status, paving the way for this year’s complete ban. Yet despite cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of death in the EU, things have moved somewhat more slowly in Europe. While a handful of member states took their own action against artificial trans fats in food, not until 2016 did the European Parliament vote to adopt a two per cent limit for trans fats in food products. Thanks to the EU’s labyrinthine politics, even with that vote in hand the necessary legislation still has to come forward from the European Commission.
So how have US companies reacted to the ban, and what can European and UK companies learn from their behaviour?
They’ve had plenty of time to prepare themselves. Even before the ban was announced in 2015, moves were afoot to find substitutes or alternatives to the partially hydrogenated soy, corn, cottonseed and sunflower oils they had come to rely on. Chief among the adopted alternatives has been a specific family of cooking oils, known as ‘high oleic’ oils.
The oleic acid to which the moniker refers is a specific type of monounsaturated fatty acid. These naturally occurring fatty acids have a far more favourable health profile than hydrogenated oils. They are beneficial to heart health and have also been shown to reduce a "bad" type of cholesterol known as LDL, simultaneously boosting concentrations of "good" cholesterol.
Although these high-oleic oils – which can be produced from sunflower, soy and oilseed rape – have been in use for some time by more enlightened operators, primarily for their perceived health benefits, it’s more recently that evidence of some of their other advantages have come to light. And what valuable advantages: extended fry life, higher smoking points, improved flavour and fry colour, on top of those health benefits.
Improvements in longevity are largely down to the altered fat composition. Monounsaturates are less prone to oxidation than their polyunsaturated counterparts; they have only one point of unsaturation and so are less affected by rancidity. It’s rancidity that leads to "off" smells and unpleasant tastes in food cooked with old oil. This resistance to rancidity and oxidation also improves shelf life, to the degree that high-oleic oils can maintain food quality in shelf-stable foods, and raises the smoke point, allowing such oils to undergo repeated use for heating and frying without deterioration.
"These oils genuinely represent a ‘new generation’ of cooking oils for US operators," says Lionel Lordez, business development manager for HOLL, a high-oleic oilseed rape variety which is grown in Britain. "US restaurant operators who have begun to use high-oleic oils report a range of benefits, including improved fry life, reduction in oil changes, reduction in oil usage and a positive reaction from customers.
"While some of these oils are more expensive than their conventional counterparts, they’ve found that additional cost is outweighed by the extended life and reduction in oil consumption," he points out.
"Even though there’s no EU ban on PHOs yet, the benefits for British foodservice operators of switching to a high-oleic oil make a lot of sense, particularly as British farmers are now growing high-oleic varieties themselves.
"Sourcing oil from British farms adds a further reason to switch, in the form of a more sustainable oil supply. A lot of commonly available foodservice oils rely on oil sourced from soy that’s grown in South America, or palm oil from the East."
HOLL has an oleic acid content of at least 75 per cent, around 25 per cent more than the standard rapeseed oils with which operators will already be familiar, and for which HOLL can be directly substituted. HOLL showed a 40% slower heat deterioration compared with conventional rapeseed oil.
In contrast to its approach to trans fats, the EU has taken a lead on another area of food legislation: acrylamide. This is a chemical produced when starchy foods are cooked at temperatures over 120C. It has the potential to cause cancer, which is why the EU is introducing new legislation taking effect this month, April 2018. It will require foodservice operators to take steps to manage acrylamide levels.
"It’s another score for high-oleic oils over their conventional counterparts," says Mr Lordez. "Compared to rapeseed, corn, soy and olive oil, HOLL produces lower levels of acrylamide."
High-oleic oils such as HOLL are becoming more widely available in the UK, thanks in part to the better availability from the larger areas that British farmers are growing. "It’s a matter of supply and demand," acknowledges Mr Lordez. "As demand increases, the more contracts we can give to British farmers and the more oil we can produce.
"In Switzerland, where take-up of HOLL has already been very popular, around one-third of the total oilseed area is now in high-oleic varieties."
Mr Lordez says some of the larger companies who are using HOLL are understandably protective of their ingredients and supply chains. "But it’s safe to say we have on board huge and familiar brands in fast food and catering.
"I hope more will join them as the benefits become clear, irrespective of how the legislation moves."
HOLL is widely available nationwide. See www.weloveholl.com for more information.