With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expected to phase out the once widely used partially hydrogenated oils over the next several years, many foodservice operators are turning to a new generation of healthful alternatives for their frying needs.

Among the most promising substitutes available to today's operators are high-oleic oils — specifically canola, sunflower and soybean oils. These products are high in monounsaturates, low in polyunsaturates and provide for long shelf life and a clean, neutral flavor. Of equal importance, they contain zero grams of artificial trans fat per serving.

“This new generation of 'better-for-you' oils have been tailored to add value at all levels,” says David Tillman, vice president of food service and food ingredients for Stratas Foods LLC, which specializes in providing fats and oils to the foodservice, food ingredient and retail private label markets. “They offer more of the properties that food manufacturers and restaurateurs are demanding.”

Initially, the FDA had ruled that partially hydrogenated vegetables oils — the primary dietary source of trans fats in food — were “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, an FDA designation indicating that a product may be used in foods. As a result, food and restaurant companies had extensively employed PHOs in food preparation to help preserve flavor, improve texture and keep certain food items shelf stable.

In November 2013, however, the federal agency reviewed additional scientific evidence and published a preliminary determination saying that artificial trans fats can contribute to health problems, such as heart disease, by raising low-density lipoprotein or bad cholesterol.

Prior to the release of the FDA's most recent findings, concerns about trans fats had already begun to emerge as an issue in the food and restaurant industries as well as among health-conscious consumers. As awareness of trans fats' less desirable aspects spread, many food manufacturers and restaurant operators took it upon themselves to eliminate PHOs — and, as a result, artificial trans fats — from the market.

The voluntarily elimination of PHOs by food manufacturers and many of the larger foodservice brands such as McDonald's and Burger King reduced the amount of artificial trans fats in the food supply by approximately 84 percent, according to Roger Daniels, vice president, research, development and innovation for Stratas Foods.

However, foodservice operators who made the transition away from PHOs and artificial trans fats required a substitute that performed as well if not better than their former cooking oils. As a result, food manufacturers have been active in developing a new generation of oils and fats for use in the increasingly trans-fat-free marketplace.

High-oleic oils represent an important new step in the industry's evolution toward more health-conscious ingredients and cooking techniques. But in addition to being more healthful, high-oleic oils possess high levels of functionality as well, proponents say. For example, they have a longer fryer life that enables fried menu items to maintain a higher level of food quality and taste. High-oleic oils are designed to last longer in the fryer, thereby ensuring that a restaurant achieves full value of the frying medium and yields consistently high-quality deep-fried menu items — also known as “staying in the sweet spot.”

“Oil needs to be seasoned in the fryer, which allows for optimal flavor and color development in crispy fried foods,” Daniels says. “High-oleic oils let you get in the sweet spot sooner and stay longer than commodity oils. They have a more robust fryer life.”

Nevertheless, not all operators are prepared to make the change, so one of the challenges inherent in marketing high-oleic oils is educating the end user, Tillman says. Some restaurateurs have balked at making the switch, maintaining that the cost per case or per pound tends to be higher than that of PHOs.

In the long run, though, the final cost actually turns out to be lower because high-oleic oils last longer, he says. “Most of the larger foodservice chains understand the whole value proposition, that they will pay more for oil,” Tillman continues. “But [high-oleic oil] has a longer fry life, so they benefit overall. The midsized and smaller chains don't always get that.”

Sustainability and concerns about additives also color some operators' decision as to which oils they should employ. Some of the larger foodservice chains have been encouraging manufacturers to work with farmers to help maximize yields from fewer acres while pursuing crop management best practices. “They want to know that the products aren't destroying rain forests,” Tillman says, “so we're seeing more sustainable practices [connected to the production of oils] than we have in the past.”

“Clean labels” pose another challenge for manufacturers, Daniels says. While some operators have voiced concern about the inclusion of additives in the current generation of oils, others say they are looking for oils that have not been genetically modified. “For those who want to make the non-GMO claim, sunflower oil fits the bill,” he says. “People want simple and sustainable these days. It's a megatrend.”

Overall, though, manufacturers are seeing the demand for high-oleic oils grow. Tillman says that frying in restaurants comprised the largest market over the last year or so, and the industry anticipates that fats containing animal fats or PHOs will continue to be replaced by high-oleic oils as well as such natural sources of solid-containing oils as palm, palm kernel and coconut oil sources; designer lipids such as Algal oils; and the next generation seed oil products.

Meanwhile, virtually everyone agrees that the shift away from trans fats in the foodservice and food industries is irreversible. “From a business perspective, we fully support the shift away from trans fats,” Tillman says. “[Pending regulations] have seen to that. But it's the right thing to do, too.”