Food manufacturers are spotlighting healthy oils used in products such as chips, crackers and dressings to play up their health halo and diverse flavor qualities, Oils that have caught the attention of manufacturers include sunflower, safflower and peanut oil, as well as olive pomace oil, which can be used in high-temperature processing.
Coconut, almond and avocado oils are particularly trendy right now, with specialty oils such as macadamia, rice bran, chia and hemp seed on the rise. At the same time, one of the most versatile and heat stable oils — palm oil — is getting an image revamp as manufacturers commit to environmental initiatives that ensure it is organically and sustainably produced.
Like many food ingredients, there is a balance to be struck between the health profile of oils and fats and how easy they are to work with in a range of products. Olive oil, for example, has a healthy image but a relatively low smoke point, making it unsuitable for use in high-heat applications.
Previously, many healthier oils could only be used in cold products like dressings and condiments, but new technologies have improved their stability, allowing manufacturers to use them in fried and baked foods. Such oils include non-GMO soy, canola and corn oils — which are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids — and high oleic oils, which have a fatty acid composition that makes them more heat stable than conventional oils and less prone to oxidation.
Oil producers have been improving the nutritional profile of their products, too. Cargill recently released a hybrid canola oil with reduced saturated fat, allowing manufacturers to cut the molecule in their products by about 35%.
After a long period when all fats and oils were considered unhealthy, consumers have started to embrace the health benefits of these ingredients, and to explore their different flavors. Ethnic cooking trends have influenced consumption. Sesame oil, for example, is benefiting from its use in Southeast Asian cooking, as many of these dishes have become part of mainstream American cuisine.
But even as the use of novel and specialty oils is on the rise, any particular oil is vulnerable to changes in consumer tastes. Coconut oil was a rising star among culinary oils in 2015, but sales fell 26% last year. Consumers now have a broader range of oils to choose from, meaning that added flavor and proven health benefits are vital to making any particular option stand out. For buyers of specialty oils, the way they are extracted is important too, and many health-conscious consumers favor cold-pressed and organic oils produced without solvents or GMOs.
Now that oils are on consumers’ radar, it may be savvy for manufacturers to move their healthy oil information to the front of their packaging, or call out when they reformulate a product with new, trending oil. At best, this could give brand the chance to raise their sticker prices, and at worst, could help differentiate products from competitors.