Trans fats and chemical vs. enzyme interesterification

Trans fats in foods are on the way out; it’s good news for consumer health, but the environment may suffer with some of the alternatives being used to ensure we continue to get our so called “heart friendly” fatty fixes.

While trans fats might occur naturally in very small amounts in some meat and dairy products, the bulk of trans fats consumed today are made by partial hydrogenation (infusing with hydrogen) of vegetable oils. Trans fats have proven to increase bad types of cholesterol, which then leads to increased risk of coronary disease.

Consumer uproar has many companies scrambling for “healthier” fat alternatives that will maintain the taste, texture and flavor of foods, while also allowing for reasonable shelf life; plus satisfying the food industry’s need for a basic ingredient that’s stable, easy to work with and store. 

Enter chemical interesterification.

Yes, it’s quite a mouthful!

Chemical interesterification is the process of blending fully hydrogenated oils (saturated fats) with unsaturated oils. A chemical catalyst (accelerant) is one of the elements used to help achieve this, along with copious quantities of water. While the end product is free of trans fatty acids, the catalysts and process aren’t exactly earth friendly.

The most common chemical catalysts used are sodium methylate (methoxide) or sodium ethylate (ethoxylate). Both of these are extremely corrosive chemicals that react violently with acids and water. They can also combine with other elements to form various environmental toxins.

With the chemical interesterification, there is also a great deal of oil waste and excessive water usage.

All so we can put more fat in our bodies :).

The greener interesterification alternative?

Some companies have been making great strides in a process called Enzymatic interesterification.

Enzymes are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. Through the utilization of these proteins, the enzymatic interesterification process doesn’t need harsh chemical catalysts and therefore eliminates toxic byproducts, air pollutants and other forms of waste. While the technology has been around for decades, it’s been cost prohibitive and enzyme stability has been an issue up until recently.

Two companies now marketing the technology, Novozymes and ADM, state that they have solved the cost and stability issue and claim that their enzymatic interesterification method has the potential to save hundreds of million pounds of soybean oil, eliminate 20 million pounds of sodium methoxide, 116 million pounds of soaps, 50 million pounds of bleaching clay, and 60 million gallons of water annually compared to interesterification process using harsh chemicals.

It all sounds very positive and I hope that the technology is used by increasing numbers of food producers; but it begs the question – how will the consumer know which process is used? Will there be an indication on the label? Trans fats somewhat hid their presence in many products behind the “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” ingredient notation for many years. We can only hope that the food industry and government does their bit by forcing correct and accurate labelling.

If in doubt about an ingredient of any product, run a search on the web or call the manufacturer; they do have an obligation to their customers to respond honestly to pointed questions about their produce. If the manufacturer seems evasive or vague about the health or environmental impact of their goods, chances are they are trying to hide something.