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Healthier Fried Foods

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By Kimberly J. Decker, Contributing Editor

Can fried foods ever be good for you? America’s crispy, crunchy, oil-cooked favorites may never vie with steamed greens as superfoods, but if consumers insist on eating them—and they will—we owe it to their health and to our bottom lines to make fried foods healthier.

The replacements

A fat is a fat when it comes to calories, but some—namely trans fats—pose health risks beyond energy excess. In response to federal labeling mandates and scattered local bans, industry has made trans reduction, if not outright removal, a top priority.

“Whenever a change in frying medium is contemplated, it is important to thoroughly evaluate the alternatives under consideration to establish that they deliver the required fried-food attributes, fry life and operational efficiency," says Bob Wainwright, technical director, Cargill Dressings, Sauces & Oils, Charlotte, NC.

Processors have developed oils whose fatty-acid profiles confer stability without added saturation. Joe Higgs, vice president of technical services, Ventura Foods, LLC, Brea, CA, says that his company worked with seed suppliers to identify soybean traits that would yield oils with both trans-free healthfulness and functionality. That meant “soybeans that had either high oleic content, low linolenic content, or low saturated content," he says.

“If you look at soybean oil today," Higgs explains, “it runs roughly about 14% naturally saturated fat. Through selective breeding, you can reduce that to 6% or 7%, and you can increase the monounsaturated oleic fat up to near 70%." Not only does that improve the oil’s fatty-acid profile nutritionally, but by tilting the fatty-acid ratio toward the more-stable monounsaturate oleic acid, it automatically lowers the proportion of polyunsaturates—and it’s the polyunsaturates, he says, “which are the fatty acids that you have to be concerned about for oxidative stability."

Processors have increased the oleic content of soybean and canola oils to as much as 70% to 80%, says Bill McCullough, director of marketing, Bunge Oils, St. Louis. Meanwhile, the content of linoleic acid, an 18-carbon polyunsaturate, runs, he says, “in the teens." But for real stability, the reduction target is linolenic. “At around 3% or below," he says, “it gives you the stability you need to avoid partial hydrogenation while still maintaining acceptable fried-food quality."

So, repeat after me: maximize the monounsaturates. “They’re really the ultimate benefit," says McCullough. “They’re driving both stability and health versus the polyunsaturates, which are good for health, but more unstable."

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