The first fat substitutes were aimed mainly to helping people lose weight. But the fat substitutes of the future will offer more ways to good health.
Casimir Akoh, a food science professor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is developing fat substitutes designed with added health benefits.
Creating New Fat Substitutes
Akoh modifies the fat to enhance the way human bodies absorb it. He is also creating new low-calorie fat substitutes called structured lipids. He does so by exchanging properties of one fatty acid for those of another.
He uses enzymes to blend long-chain fatty acids, like those in vegetable and fish oils, with short- or medium-chain fatty acids. The former provide nutritional qualities, while the latter metabolize faster and provide quick energy.
"The combination of fatty acids is important," Akoh said, "because they each deliver benefits via two different physiological pathways: the long chains through the lymph system, and the short and medium chains through the circulatory system."
This could result in healthier fats in our diets.
Fish Oil Without the Fish
One of his fat substitutes was created from medium- and long-chain fatty acids from fish oil. In lab tests, this fat substitute has been shown to reduce cholesterol by 49 percent.
It also boosts the immune system by increasing thymus cells 19 percent. The thymus is a ductless gland composed mainly of lymphoid cells. It plays a part in the body's immune system.
"This could be especially beneficial to AIDS patients who have low T-cell counts," he said. "We're trying to develop these oils for specific groups, like AIDS patients or people with cystic fibrosis or fat absorption disorder. And we're also working on an infant formula."
The new fish-oil fat would be helpful, too, to healthy people who want to stay that way. Many people want the health benefits of fish oil, but don't like fish.
"We're creating various structured lipids and adding them to products like mayonnaise, salad dressing, beverages, confectionary coatings and even dark chocolate," Akoh said. "By adding healthy oils like this one directly to foods that already call for fat as an ingredient, we can get them into mainstream consumer products."
Akoh says taking a fish oil supplement wouldn't be nearly as effective, because the body absorbs structured oil much more quickly and easily than a pill.
What Will Consumers Say?
Before these new oils can make it to the market shelves, however, they have to pass the consumer tests.
"We recently introduced to a consumer panel a new canola-oil-based structured lipid used to create a chocolate-flavored nutritional beverage," he said. "The oil was blended into a nutritional supplement drink. They tasted one with the new fat and one with the traditional fat ingredient."
The results from this taste test aren't yet available.
"These new oils are a step in the right direction," Akoh said. "Now people are eating fat just because it's part of their food. We want people to eat a healthier kind of fat that will do some good for them and not clog their arteries. So when you make a batch of cookies, you can include a fat that wouldn't increase your cholesterol."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)