The oil industry operates in an environment of ever-changing consumer tastes, environmental and health concerns, and regulatory issues or mandates. That means successful oil manufacturers must not only keep up with current expectations, they must anticipate future trends and have products ready, sometimes even before the “market” asks for them. The secret to success in this area is aggressive research and development.

Right now, partially hydrogenated oils and genetically modified organisms issues are dominating the lab space for food researchers. Partially hydrogenated oils, or PHOs, are the chief dietary source of artificial trans fats, which have been designated as contributing to health problems by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. The agency initially had ruled that PHOs were “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, a designation indicating that a product is safe for use in food. More recently, though, the agency said it had reviewed other scientific evidence and tentatively reversed its original ruling, declaring that PHOs increase the risk of developing heart disease by raising low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol.

If that determination is finalized, as it is expected to be, PHOs would be banned as an ingredient in food.

However, even by the time the FDA had officially announced its new finding Nov. 7 2013, health concerns about trans fats already had emerged, prompting food manufacturers and restaurant operators to take pre-emptive measures to reduce artificial trans fats in foods.

Food manufacturers redoubled their R&D efforts to produce promising substitutes, allowing prominent foodservice brands like McDonald's, Burger King and Dunkin' Donuts to take voluntary action to reduce trans fats in their cooking oils and fats. The mean adult intake of trans fats from food containing PHOs declined from 4.6 grams each day in 2003 to 1.3 grams in 2010, according to the FDA.

The other major R&D focus is on providing oils that do not contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. A GMO is a plant that has been developed through a specific process in which a gene or section of genetic material from a plant or organism is placed in another plant.

The key to developing products that meet the current needs of consumers and foodservice operators is to first identify what that next generation of products should be, experts say. Roger Daniels, vice president of research, development and innovation for Stratas Foods LLC, says the process begins by encouraging R&D team members to be curious and monitor what is happening in the industry, and then move progressively “from concept to commercialization. But the first step is you have to start with an idea,” he says.

One way of determining the importance of an “idea” is by listening to what end-use customers and others in the industry are saying. “You have to take a look at the words people are using to describe it,” he says, “and then decide whether the idea is a fad or a trend. If the idea is deemed to be approaching trend status, then we begin our research efforts in earnest to come up with viable mitigation options.”

For example, food manufacturers began addressing the trans fat issue in their laboratories long before the FDA issued its preliminary ruling on PHOs. As a result of its early attention to the emerging issue, food manufacturers have been able to make available new technological innovations that feature zero trans-fat per-serving solutions. At Stratas today, Daniels says, fats that contain animal or partially hydrogenated oils are being replaced by high oleic oils — chiefly, high oleic soybean, canola and sunflower oils.

The company's R&D efforts also have allowed it to offer such natural sources of solid-containing oils as palm and palm kernel, and next-generation seed oil products.

Daniels says Stratas is extending its line of “interesterified” or IE, shortenings, which have been developed specifically to address the requirements of bakers or restaurants with in-store baking facilities seeking zero-trans-fat bakery products. Through its R&D process, Stratas has been able to develop shortening containing no PHOs or trans fats.

Stratas brought Flex Palm, a baking product based on enzymatic interestification and employing a process called “Functional Crystallization,” to market in 2013. It was the first zero-trans-fat palm oil that performs to the same bakers' specifications as a  partially hydrogenated shortening.

Another challenge for oil manufacturers' R&D teams has been to develop cooking oils that do not contain genetically modified organisms, like soybean oil. For example, to address concerns about GMOs, Stratas' newest product is a premium sunflower frying oil that contains no genetically modified organisms and no trans fats. This non-GMO mid-oleic and high-oleic blend is being marketed under the Sustain brand name and combines the health, performance and sustainability benefits that restaurant expect and consumers demand.

As science evolves, Daniels says, food companies and their R&D teams must be flexible. “At the end of the day it's food we're working with and safety is paramount,” he says. “Then we address [a product's] quality traits like taste, convenience, how it functions … and nutritional elements.”

“Stratas is successful because it works to challenge [R&D] folks to be curious and flexible enough to recognize that as science evolves we have to be able to adjust our solution set to encompass the latest and greatest scientific capabilities,” Daniels says.

Stratas, which specializes in providing fats and oils to the foodservice, food ingredient and retail private label markets, conducts much of its R&D process in its 38,000-square-foot Research & Development Innovation Center at company's headquarters in Memphis, Tenn.