Soft Material with Fat-Like Functionalities

August 27, 2013 in Food Economics, Foodland, General, Health, Nutritionism, Shelf Life, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

A small bit of information in this week’s food technology news caught my attention. Two reasons why this one stood out from the background of so much food engineering is first that there have already been short-term failures in creating new fat-like molecules in the lab (Olestra); and second, that following the creation of the off-shoot of artificially hydrogenated fats, trans fats, it took so many decades to discover the terribly unhealthy properties of these un-natural molecules. Trans fats are wonderful for food preparation, which was developed quickly; but devastating to the body, which took decades to discover. What will new untested molecules do? How long will it take before it is released to the public and how long after that will we discover the bad effects? Delayed effects are so much harder to discover than the quick mouth feel, taste, and non-spoiling properties of a food-like but artificial fat substitute.

The study that attracted my attention was published in LWT – Food Science and Technology. It was funded by Kraft Foods. The goal was to discover a new fat replacer that can be used to provide “fat-like functionalities.” The Canadian researchers were looking for a trans fat free option for shortenings, fillings for cookies, muffins, puff pastries and chocolate products. They say it can be extremely beneficial for consumers and industry. I bolded ‘industry’ because I believe it is, of course, the most important part of that quest. They’re trying to replace the trans fats that are still commonly used in bakery and sweets. That sounds really good; replacing deadly trans fats; but only if the replacement is not as bad or worse. Their idea is to gel oils into ‘oleogels’ or organogels.’ My favorite sentence from the researcher ends with: “to understand the structural, compositional and interaction parameters associated with the gelation process and to discover a novel class of soft material with fat-like functionalities.” Seriously, friends, “a novel class of soft material with fat-like functionalities.” I’m so thrilled that their investigation went so well in forming a novel gel from cellulosic polymer, surfactant and oil; and learn how it was going to behave – and whether it could be used to replace trans fats. But note carefully: The purpose was not to make sure that the newly created molecules, never ingested before by the human body, would be safe from long-term bad effects. To do that takes, well, long periods of time, long exposure of human bodies to the new molecules.

I understand the nature of Big Food; including Kraft Foods Group. I know they are responsible to their shareholders; I understand that is supremely important. I know money makes the world go round. I’m glad for them and all their investors that they’re doing so well. Yahoo! If they eat their own products, I hope they live to enjoy their profits. What people won’t do for a little Turkish Delight (Kraft’s Cadbury line)! Hopefully, none of the Big Food products turn out to be addictive, or give the investors a problem like CS Lewis’ character Edmund had because of his taste for Turkish Delight.

OK, back to reality. Why am I so sarcastic? Why is my public health brain so worried? I really do love science and all it can do. I appreciate being born into this time in history, even with all its challenges. But, …the big BUT (or rats butt, in the case of Olestra), is this: I wish that we could eat real food; mostly stuff that grows in the garden, foods that are close to nature. There’s a plethora of evidence that real whole foods are linked with decreased risks of numerous diseases. I realize that many Americans don’t want to eat those foods; or possibly don’t know how to change their diet to accommodate using more of those foods. But I wish that we could spend our time helping people eat healthier, instead of making a organogel from heaven knows what – essentially for the profits. Unlike real foods, you can patent it. Hooray, and Monopoly! It is not already a commodity. Profits $$$$!! Yes, I realize that bad health effects is at the base of the problem that they’re trying to solve – replace an unhealthy but profitable product with one with similar properties that is not yet known to be unhealthy. But the question that is looming in my mind, is: How long will it be before we will know if it causes problems like trans fats caused? Or perhaps it will spawn new classes of problems!

We were hydrogenating oil and partially hydrogenating oil for decades before we ‘stumbled’ on the unhappy information that trans fats are deadly. It took over nine decades from the time that Procter & Gamble introduced Crisco (1911) until the U.S. government agreed that there is likely no safe level of trans fat consumption (2002). We have to wonder how many lives have been lost or shortened by the use of partially hydrogenated oil, during that time. There’s a nice little concise history and graphic on the American Heart Association’s website.

Hydrogenation is used to preserve oil. Once hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, oil can last for a really long time – that’s great for taste buds and Big Food – but not so great for arteries and hearts.

Note that mandatory labels of trans fats began in 2006. So we finally learned how bad it was for us in 1993, 81 years after Crisco was introduced, and it took about 13 years after that for the label mandate to pass. Over twenty years later, we’re still struggling with the problem. If you eat many bakery items from a fresh bakery, there is no law in most states to tell you whether or not partially hydrogenated fats are in the baked goods. The labels are not stopping the use of trans fats in all kinds of products.

But Big Food has a different problem; they sell their products in packages – packages that often sit on shelves for a very long time. The products containing non-hydrogenated fat will become rancid and repulsive to the consumer if it spoils. Or if trans fats are used, knowledgeable people will look at their candy, cookies, and other snacks wrappers and see the trans fats listed on the mandatory label. So food vendors would like to be able to say ‘0’ amount of trans fat right on the label. They would like to declare that they do not have any amount of the poisonous food-like substance. They can make this declaration so long as there is less than a half a gram of trans fat in a serving size. So when you see an unusually small serving size, it often means the serving size was set to get the trans fat below .5 grams. Indeed, the problem of trans fats is still with us. If you see partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list, you know you’re getting them.

But how are we supposed to know if a newly invented gel from cellulosic polymer, surfactant and oil will behave in our arteries? How about in small blood vessels or with our immune cells? Sure the researchers and Kraft may be all excited about what it does for taste, mouth feel and preservative qualities, but what will it do in our body after years of exposure? Maybe we should consider limiting the intake of processed foods, not let each new profitable artificial food-like substance drag out for decades of human beings being unwitting lab rats. I’m not talking about historically safe processing like making raisins from grapes, or roasting nuts – two snack foods I’d recommend. I’m talking about Cheetos, Goldfish, Lucky Charms and the like – they’ve never seen a vine or a tree; they’re made from highly processed grains and artificial stuff.

A bite of Turkish Delight may be fine now and then; but if you’re frequently having a bite of this and a meal of that, it could be adding up to real trouble for you and your health. Maybe we can learn from Edmund’s tribulations, or the American Heart Association and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated 2013 statistics and records. These facts may help us to face reality.