A catchy 1987 television advertising campaign for a butter spread replacement popularized the product and the slogan “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”, with the promise of a healthier product that removed cholesterol from the ingredient list.
However, it turned out that the popular buttery spread and other similar processed butter products contained artificial “trans fats” that were made using a chemical process called partial hydrogenation. The popular choice for making margarines, spreads and shortenings for decades, artificial trans fats were phased out in 2021 due to concerns about an increased risk of heart disease and stroke among consumers.
Scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) have spent the past decade developing a healthier buttery spread that looks, feels and tastes like margarine.
According to Jill Moser and Hong-Sik Hwang, research chemists at NCAUR, better known as the Peoria Ag Lab, their oleogel-based margarine substitute may soon be in consumer food products.
“Historically, hydrogenated oil, which contained trans fats, was used to make these spreads. The food industry and restaurants have switched to palm oil, or some of the tropical oils. The problem is that these oils are not healthy either,” Hwang said during a recent interview at the Peoria Ag Lab. “We wanted to replace these oils with a healthier choice.”
Over the course of a decade of research, Hwang and Moser discovered a “healthier choice” for trans fats by using plant-based and nature-based waxes, including sunflower, rice bran, candelilla, and beeswax. The process involves melting the waxes in hot vegetable oil and cooling them to room temperature, resulting in a semi-solid substance called an oleogel.
When mixed with water, salt and other ingredients, the oleogel mimics the role of saturated fat in producing a margarine, spread or shortening that has the desired firmness, mouthfeel, melting point, shelf life and other properties, including when used in baked goods.
Oleogels derived from plant waxes are of particular interest to USDA researchers because they are “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are plentiful, and inexpensive. Some, such as sunflower wax, are waste products generated by refining procedures used to remove impurities in the seed of the flowering crop. Others, such as rice bran wax, are waste by-products of husk oil refining processes.
Oleogel-based spreads will result in healthier choices for consumers concerned about saturated fats in their diet, the researchers noted.
“Current dietary guidelines recommend that the fat in your diet should come primarily from oils that are low in saturated fat,” Moser said. “The motivation for our research was to find a way to give food products the (correct) texture without using oils with a high content of saturated fats, so that we can use healthier, liquid oils in processed foods.”
Research has shown that a number of different oils, including soybean oil, high-oleic sunflower oil, canola oil, olive, hemp, and flaxseed oil, as well as any type of nut oil, can be used to replace the saturated fats currently used in processed foods . This should translate into additional opportunities for agricultural producers to market their products or by-products to the food industry.
According to Moser, the researchers are “very close” to a marketable, healthier spreadable butter product. “Together with food companies, we looked at how they could be used in different types of food products. It is not necessarily a walk-in solution as there is a lot of difference between these wax based oleogels and traditional grease products. But we can process them in food products. It’s just a matter of testing to find the right conditions and right amounts for use in food products.”
In addition, some ingredients will have to undergo further independent safety testing before the FDA will grant final approval for oleogel-based nutritional products to reach the public.
“When we started this project about ten years ago, only a few scientists were working on it. Now I would say there are a few hundred scientists working on it because of the potential for commercialization. We are currently working with two companies to test oleogel formulations in their products,” said Hwang.
“I’d like to see (commercialization) happen within the next one to two years, but we’re scientists working to improve the properties of these materials. We need to highlight the health impacts of these materials so that people know that changing the conventional solid fat in this oleogel is very important for (their) health.”
While the health benefits of the oleogel-based margarines and other food products have been proven by Moser and Hwang’s groundbreaking research, the scientists are aware that products must pass the consumer “taste test” to succeed commercially. So the couple’s current research focuses on matching the right waxes with the right food products to maximize flavor.
“Waxes are very similar to fats. They’re made of carbon and hydrogen, so they have very similar sensory properties,” Moser said. they no longer feel like a waxy coating by the time they get into your mouth.
According to NCAUR Director Todd Ward, Hwang and Moser’s work with oleogels is part of a larger research effort at the ARS center to usher in new value-added applications for both established crops such as corn and soybeans and newer ones such as cress and hemp where both farmers and consumers will benefit.
“This work is part of our broader program to develop healthier food choices for American consumers and provide new economic opportunities for the agricultural industry. This research has identified new uses for agricultural commodities that in this case will also have positive health benefits for consumers,” said Ward.