Designing next gen fats and oils

Designing next gen fats and oils

Designing next gen fats and oils

CHICAGO — Fat is a necessary macronutrient in the human diet historically obtained from animals and plants. As a solid fat or liquid oil, the ingredient also may offer functional aspects in many formulations. Technology enables the design of fats to provide maximum functionality, while also providing an optimal nutrition profile. And right now, a race is on to utilize a relatively new technology that has microorganisms producing specialty fats without the animal or plant.

“Designer fats and oils is a relatively broad term generally used to mean lipids that provide a targeted functionality in a product,” said Jeffrey Fine, senior director – customer innovation, AAK USA Inc., Edison, NJ. “They deliver certain sensory attributes, better shelf life, processing properties or a particular nutritional profile.”

The physical and rheological properties of fat, along with nutritional value, are determined by the distribution and composition of the three fatty acids on the triacylglycerol backbone that make up the fat. Fats also may be designed to contain higher quantities of the omega-3 fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

The designing of fats may be accomplished by rearranging or altering the three fatty acids. This approach is not new science, as it was the basis of making solid margarine from vegetable oil. Another approach is through fractionation, a technology that separates the fat into different phases based on melting point. For vegetable oils, plant breeding may be used to alter fatty acid composition, and with animal fats, diet is an influence.

“The first designer food was omega-3 rich eggs, which was developed by feeding hens flaxseed, a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acid linolenic acid,” said Michael Eskin, distinguished professor, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg City, Man. “Current developments include the development of an omega-3 high-oleic acid canola oil to provide a diverse and sustainable source of omega-3 fatty acids for foods, supplements, animal feed and the fast-growing aquaculture industry.”

Conventional canola oil is typically 10% ALA. It has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2:1. Nuseed Nutritional, West Sacramento, Calif., developed a plant-based source of DHA, EPA and ALA, with an improved omega ratio.

“The plant scientists at Nuseed optimized canola to double the ALA and produce longer chain DHA and EPA fatty acids,” said Mark Smith, nutraceuticals lead. “The ingredient provides 30% total omega-3 nutrition and improved the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to 1:4.

“This novel ingredient creates a new omega-3 supply chain and reduces pressure on ocean resources. With the rising popularity of flexitarian diets and concerns about sustainability and animal welfare, there’s a growing market for plant-based designer fats and oils. Innovative approaches, like biotechnology, can produce plant-derived oils with improved nutritional profiles and functional properties that can rival traditional animal-derived fats.”

Unlike marine fish or algal oils, the fat ingredient is sensory neutral. The increased ALA content may be leveraged for a “good source” of omega-3 label claim.

“The mild taste and aroma allow formulators to increase the nutritional profile of their products without having to hide the taste or smell,” Smith said. “It comes in oil and powder formats. The powder is soluble in liquids and suited to food and beverage applications.”

Cargill, Minneapolis, has partnered with Spanish startup Cubiq Foods to commercialize a smart fat technology referred to as a structured emulsion. It offers many functional benefits to plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, improving attributes like mouthfeel, structure and flavor.

“At the same time, it also supports improved nutritional profiles, enabling brands to reduce calories and total fats,” said John Satumba, category research and development leader for indulgence. “We continue to develop foundational technologies like interesterification to develop designer fats. The next phase is the use of novel technologies to push boundaries even further.”

Putting microbes to work

One such novel technology is precision fermentation, which uses bioengineering to program microorganisms with a specific genetic code. In turn, the microbe produces a compound of interest when fermented under precise conditions.

“We know that the plant-based food industry is young, growing quickly and ripe for disruption,” said James Petrie, chief executive officer and co-founder, Nourish Ingredients, Canberra, Australia. “Saturated fat is key to great taste, as they are slow-melting fats and create the juiciness consumers expect in meat. Plant-based meat alternatives historically have relied on palm and coconut oils as sources of saturated fat. Both, however, are associated with negative environmental implications.

“Right now, people eating these alternative protein products are getting just that, an alternative experience where the difference between animal fats and traditionally used animal-free fats is easily discernible,” Petrie said. “Our technology gives these food makers the ability to offer more sustainable alternative protein products without having to sacrifice on taste, which is ultimately very appealing to the end consumer.”

Nourish Ingredients developed a proprietary fermentation process that mimics the molecular structure of animal fats without having to use animal products or traditional materials like coconut or palm oils. The process allows them to tailor flavor profiles and mouthfeel properties to mirror any number of animal proteins, including seafood, pork, beef and chicken.

Another company in the designer fat space is Melt&Marble, Gothenburg, Sweden. Melt&Marble’s precision fermentation platform enables it to create customized fats with molecular properties mirroring those of animal fats.

“While most people accept that we must minimize our consumption of animal-based foods, plant-based alternatives face a big hurdle,” said Anastasia Krivoruchko, CEO and co-founder. “The plant-based fats currently used simply do not feel, act and taste like animal-based fats. As a result, the food does not taste as good, making it less attractive to consumers.”

At the core of their technology is precision fermentation, where yeast metabolism is rewired to convert sugars into fats, allowing for the replication of existing fats and the creation of new ones with tailored properties. Tests conducted on the company’s animal-free beef fat show it displays the gradual melting behavior of beef fat, an important property for achieving slow flavor release and lingering juiciness.

“Precision fermentation typically involves using genetic engineering to direct a host microbe to produce a desired ingredient,” Fine said. “It is technically feasible to produce designer fats by precision fermentation, but issues around yield, efficiency, scale and cost remain challenges.”

AAK hopes to change that. The company recently was awarded a grant in conjunction with Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden to support the development of microbial cell factories for specialty lipids.