Vegetable oils on the rise in new food launches

12 Aug 2019

The use of oils and fats in new food and beverage launches was up 6% in 2018 as consumer understanding of fat’s role in a balanced diet finally has entered the mainstream.

Manufacturers no longer fear fat in new product formulations, as the low fat diet trend of previous decades is now firmly in the past. Instead, many are looking to healthier oils and fats – and plant-derived oils in particular. The ‘good fat’ message received a major boost back in 2006 when Frito-Lay moved to sunflower oil, and many other manufacturers have followed suit, particularly in Europe amid widespread concern over the environmental impacts of palm oil.

Vegetable oils on the rise in new food launches
Vegetable oil use in packaged foods has risen steeply

While the use of fats and oils in new product launches has increased globally, sunflower oil was only the second most common oil on ingredient lists after generic ‘vegetable oil’ – which may be used as an umbrella term for a combination of oils. In some regions, it may also be used to obfuscate the use of oils that some consumers might consider controversial, such as palm oil, genetically modified soybean oil and partially hydrogenated oils. Under EU law, individual oils and fats must be specified directly after the term ‘vegetable oil’. In addition, European manufacturers must highlight the use of any genetically modified ingredients, but this is not the case in many other parts of the world.

The top five listed oils were vegetable oil (29%), sunflower oil (22%), palm oil (15%), rapeseed oil (12%) and vegetable fat (11%).

Apart from increased awareness of healthy fats and oils, confusing messages about how saturated fat affects heart health may also be part of the reason for renewed acceptance of fats in general. Despite decades of public health messages recommending low saturated fat consumption, researchers recently have started to question whether saturated fat really is so unhealthy. In most countries, the advice remains to limit saturated fat in the diet and replace it with unsaturated fats, and a recent Cochrane Review concluded that this was still useful advice – although the authors also found no good evidence to recommend any particular kind of unsaturated fat in its place.

Meanwhile, oil suppliers have started to develop vegetable oils with lower saturated fat content in an effort to improve the health profile of processed foods, while retaining the functionality of existing oils. Bunge, Brenntag and ADM are among those that provide high oleic oils from soybeans, corn, canola, sunflower and safflower, meaning they are higher in monounsaturated fats than other varieties. And Cargill has also developed a high oleic canola oil, which it claims can cut the saturated fat content in finished products by 35% compared to ordinary canola oil. All of these oils allow food manufacturers to reduce saturated fat, and are suitable for fried and baked goods as they have better heat stability and are less prone to oxidation than regular oils.

However, palm oil remains the world’s most popular vegetable oil, including in Europe, for its low cost, long shelf life, and processing benefits such as heat stability and solidity at room temperature, making it a useful alternative to partially hydrogenated oils. Efforts are ongoing to improve sustainability in sector, and moves to reject unsustainable and unethical palm oil have been gaining momentum, which could help boost its reputation. With its high saturated fat content, it also stands to gain from questions around the role of unsaturated fats in heart health.

In 2018, bakery was the top category for global product launches with fats and oils, accounting for 24% of the total, according to Innova, followed by snacks (14%), and ready meals and side dishes (11%).