The push for using trans fat-free oils in restaurant cooking continues on many fronts, and advocates of all stripes seem to share an unstated belief: It’s easy for restaurants to make the switch from hydrogenated oils. All operators like you have to do, the thinking goes, is get on the horn to your distributor and tell him to include sufficient amounts of trans fat- free oil as part of the next delivery. One call and you’re with the program.
Which would be the case if the farmers who produce the agricultural products that become trans fat-free oils—primarily soybean growers—and the companies who process them could have forecast this massive surge of demand a few years ago. That’s how long it takes them to make major adjustments in what they grow and how they process it.
In retrospect, supply would have aligned neatly with demand if, while busy campaigning for restaurants to switch to trans fat-free oils for cooking, advocates would have simultaneously lobbied farmers and edible oil companies to grow and process massive amounts of trans fat-free oils. That way, companies eager to make the switch would have found a ready supply.
As it turned out, so many restaurant companies jumped on board so fast that sourcing adequate supplies of trans fat-free oils has become somewhat problematic. That’s why big restaurant chains that have made the switch are phasing it in at only some of their units or using it only in the preparation of certain menu items. Price and performance are part of the equation here, but so is availability.
So what’s the supply outlook? It’s about to get better.
Several years ago, companies in the soybean industry joined together to form Qualisoy, a soybean industry initiative to market healthier, more functional soybean products to the food industry. Part of that initiative was the development of trait-enhanced soybeans that offer enhanced health benefits and better functionality for foods. As the Qualisoy people like to say, “Changing the composition of a commodity crop the size of soy is no small undertaking.”
The biggest success so far has been the development of low-linolenic soybeans. Oil made from them provides a ready alternative to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. This year’s harvest yielded 400 million pounds of low-linolenic oil; next year’s forecast is for more than one billion pounds—roughly the capacity of the seed industry that supplies growers with seed for low-linolenic soybean plants. Approximately 18 billion pounds of soybean oil were used in the U.S. last year.
Is this the product you want to use if you decide to go the no-trans-fat route at your restaurant? Alternative oil choices—sunflower, canola, peanut or palm—have issues of their own. They may cost more, or perform differently, than what you currently use.
“Other oils impart flavors, or have impaired fry life or other characteristics that don’t make them as desirable as soybean oil,” is how Murray Meikenhous, v.p. of purchasing for Houlihan’s Restaurants, summed it up for the Wall Street Journal.
Houlihan’s has been testing low-linolenic soybean oil and plans to pick its supplier soon. The way the market is moving, you may want to do some testing of your own. Just be sure your distributor can supply you with your favored oil if you decide to make a switch.