LAURA DAVIÑAResearchers from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), together with the company Cargill Agrícola, have developed a fat with a low saturated fatty acid content and with no trans fat whatsoever, which is already being used by the food industry as a cookie filler and also in the formulation of various products. Since August 2009, this new fat, for which a patent request has been filed in Brazil and abroad, is being manufactured and marketed by Cargill. The raw materials used, which are derived from vegetable sources, are not new. “They are used in products that are established in Brazilian commerce,” says professor Lireny Aparecida Guaraldo Gonçalves, from the Oils and Fats Laboratory at the Food Engineering School of Unicamp (FEA). She coordinated the research jointly with the researcher Renato Grimaldi, from the same laboratory. “The new aspect is the crystallization process, which fulfills a technological need in the industry.” In other words, the researchers managed to obtain a product with a lower content of saturated fatty acids and no trans fats, without losing sensory characteristics of texture and stability. Additionally, no change in the production lines was required in order to make it.
The research that led to the new fat began back in the 1990s. “At that time, there was no survey on what this trans fat distribution in the food market was like, neither was it quantified,” says Lireny. The earliest Unicamp studies in the field encompassed quantification methodologies, using different analytic techniques that international information had already shown to be efficient. “Once these techniques had been learned, the trans fat content in hydrogenated fats was assessed; the latter reigned absolute in the domestic market and was produced by large companies,” Grimaldi tells us. These companies prepared fats containing 20% to 50% of trans fats for food processing industries. The universal method for obtaining these products was partial hydrogenation, whereby non-saturated oil from soy, corn, cotton, canola and other vegetable sources was transformed into a paste-like mass, with the help of hydrogen.
The chemical interesterification processes, an alternative for the production of trans-free fats, were already known at that time. “Interesterification is based on the reaction of oils and a catalyst to produce new fats, in which there is an alteration in the chemical position of the fatty acids,” says Lireny. One of the pioneers of such studies in Brazil and now a research partner of the Unicamp group is professor Luiz Antonio Gioielli, from the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of São Paulo. He is responsible for selecting various raw materials that were used in the search for new trans-free fats. “One of the solutions proposed by Gioielli was using interesterified fats, starting with a mixture of interesterified liquid oils and fully hydrogenated oils,” says Lireny. As the products obtained in this way are thicker, they are only used for specific applications, such as ice-cream toppings and fried foodstuffs. However, they account for a very small portion of the market, which requires a large range of products with different melting, consistency, texture and stability profiles. Based on the path opened by Gioielli, different proposals were created and tested, including that of the Unicamp researchers. In 2008, after the research had progressed, industry manifested its interest in the work conducted at the School of Food Engineering. That was when an industrial cooperation agreement was established, partnered by Inova (Innovation Agency) and Funcamp (Development Foundation), both of them belonging to Unicamp.
Dende Palm Oil
As of July 2006, it became necessary to declare the trans fat and saturated fat content and other nutrients on industrially packaged food labels. This drove the companies to invest in new production processes. In the case of the saturated fats and trans fatty acids, the figures declared as “zero” or “does not contain any” must be no greater than 0.2 grams of the component per portion of the food. One of the products used to replace trans fats is palm oil, also known as dende oil. Its chief drawback for large scale use is that Brazilian production of palm oil is concentrated mainly in the state of Pará and is insufficient to meet the demand for the product, which is used by both the food industry and the cosmetics industry. The major global suppliers and producers are Malaysia and Indonesia, but importing vegetable oil for general use into Brazil would make products substantially more expensive to produce. Therefore, interesterified fats seem to be an interesting alternative to palm oil.
“Data divulged by Abia, the Brazilian Association of Food Industries, indicate that since 2006, when the current law went into effect, and until 2010, the reduction of trans fatty acids in the food of Brazilians was excellent from the nutritional point of view,” says Lireny. A study divulged by Abia in November 2010 indicated that in the product categories analyzed, 94.6% of its member firms, on average, had cut trans fat content down to the level established as the target in 2008, during the 2nd Meeting of the Healthy Food Forum, instituted as a result of a Technical Cooperation Agreement signed by the entity and the Ministry of Health. The reduction targets were based on the recommendations of the Panamerican Health Organization, which set a limit of 5% for trans fats as a percentage of total fats in processed foods and of 2% of the total in oils and margarines.
The study was conducted between March and October of last year, among its member companies, which represent 73% of Brazil’s food production. Twelve food categories were evaluated, including snack foods, instant pastas, ice-creams, broths, chocolates, soups, panettone, sweet loaves of bread, oils, ready-to-eat dishes, biscuits and cakes, besides margarines and vegetable creams, all chosen for their very high trans fat content. Manufacturers of snack foods, instant pastas and panettones fully achieved the target set, followed by the ice-cream industries, with 99.7%, and the broths and soups industry, with 98.8%. In the other categories, seven firms reached 90% to 99.7% of the target.
Production of low trans fats and their application in foods (nº 2005/54796-4); Type Regular Research Awards; Coordinator Lireny Guaraldo Gonçalves – Unicamp; Investment R$ 267.760,00 (FAPESP)