The enthusiasm now is about what’s next. What fats and oils can contribute to agreeable food textures and mouthfeel along with longer shelf lives all at a competitive cost?
Industry guidelines designed to reduce exposure to trans-fats or partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) found in baked goods, fried foods, chips and margarine were voluntarily adopted by European food makers around 2007.
The approach appears to have yielded better health outcomes but also more new-product innovation and progress that meets consumer health needs while maintaining taste expectations.
“The food industry has been searching for a replacement for palm and hydrogenated vegetable oils that maintains quality, taste and functionality and also meets their rigorous criteria for sustainable sourcing," said Mark Brooks, senior vice president of TerraVia, an algae-based food ingredients specialist based in San Francisco.
"We believe algae butter is a game changer for the structuring fats industry in terms of sustainability and nutrition."
The use of microalgae-based ingredients in food are by and large not new. Spirulina, a type of algae, has been used in juice drinks and in supplements for many years.
In addition, the majority of infant formulas commercially available use algae oil as the source of their healthy fats.
Only last week TerraVia received a generally recognised as safe (GRAS) approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its algae butter.
TerraVia's product lines also include its AlgaWise brand - two oils created with either a high monounsaturated fat content or stability.
Although not currently approved in Europe, the firm said a novel foods application was being prepared for submission and was aiming to have a European Food and safety Authority (EFSA) approval by 2018.
The differences of these oils, produced to address specific consumer needs, is both an opportunity and a challenge in assuring its adoption over more established oils in the marketplace.
Plant-based liquid oils such as olive and avocado oil as well as foods such as peanut butter, nuts and seeds continue to prove popular amongst consumers eager to switch to the healthier mono- or polyunsaturated fats.
The issue here is these oils are great for some applications, but not for others. Olive oil is naturally high in monounsaturated fat, but also high in polyunsaturated fats. This makes it suitable for light frying but its low shelf-stability makes it unsuitable for commercial baked goods.
The ongoing challenge now is to develop products with non-hydrogenated oils that combine the health benefits with product characteristics that consumers have come to expect.
Food makers have turned to the so-called tropical fats such as coconut, palm kernel or palm oil but these alternative oils can contain a high level of saturated fat up to 60%.
Fortunately, they can be successfully blended with other fats like canola (rapeseed) oil. The resultant product is the best of both worlds possessing a lower saturated fat content and the desired physical qualities.
It’s not all good news though. Palm oil’s use in food has been blighted with controversy with accusations of mass deforestation, illegal displacement of people from their land and violations of workers’ rights amongst other malpractices.
Enter the soybean
So what are the alternatives? Late last year, news filtered through of a novel processing technology that prepares soybean oil without producing unhealthy trans-fats.
The method was said to improve on the traditional soybean oil hydrogenation process, which lessened the nutritional value by the formation of undesirable trans-fatty acids up to 45%.
Soybean oil has traditionally been the main vegetable oil used for hydrogenation due to its low cost, availability and longer frying time. Its susceptibility to turn rancid is perhaps its main drawback.
But with new advanced extraction and blending technologies, high-oleic soybean oil and stearidonic acid (SDA)-rich soybean oil have made their way into many existing foods without losing consumer acceptance.
Agrochemical and agricultural corporations Monsanto and DuPont have arguably made the most strides in this field.
Their products - DuPont’s Plenish and Monsanto’s Roundup-ready Vistive Gold - are the result of efforts to make soybean oil suitable for processed foods.
Likewise SDA-rich soybean oil aims to become a functional ingredient that can be added to a variety of foods, such as soups, sauces, beverages, yogurts and breads.
It is also said to be a more superior source of omega-3 fatty acid as they are more efficiently converted by the body into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) than the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3s found in plant sources.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) gave a positive scientific opinion for Monsanto’s MON 87769 × MON 89788 soybean crop back in 2015.
The crop, which had been genetically modified to contain SDA, was not considered by the Panel to impact on food safety.
Since then, more of Monsanto's genetically modified soybean varieties (MON 87708 x MON 89788) and (MON 87705 x MON 89788) have gained further approval.
Along with soybean FG 72 from Bayer's CropScience division, the rulings have paved the way for these soybeans to be included in food or animal feed, but not for planting within the EU region.