Kermit Highfield – The 21-Century Shift from Soybean Oil to Palm Oil in the Snacks Industry

The problems with Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil

Kermit Highfield of Southern Food & Snacks was asked to analyze and review how the American Snacks Industry has shifted from Soybean Oil (specifically Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil) to Palm Oil.  A summary follows.  

Food uses of partially hydrogenated soybean oil were in the production of margarine, shortening, salad / cooking oils, cookies, snack cakes, muffins, and of course chips and microwave popcorn.Soybean oil is obtained from soybeans by expression or solvent extraction and contains triglycerides of linoleic acid, oleic acid, linolenic acid, and saturated fatty acids.  The main reason these foods used partially hydrogenated soybean oil is because it is an oil or agent that solidifies at room temperature.

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The set or solidification at room temperature is important as it allows these products to maintain a clean and tasty presence in packaging without refrigeration.  As you can see these are all items that would not be as tasty nor useable if the oils moved into liquid form while in transit, on the shelf, in your grocery bag, or in the pantry.  The reasons for solid oils are pretty clean and clear.      

The hydrogenation of soybean oil began decades ago.Hydrogenation is the reaction of hydrogen with an organic compound. This process was used with Soybean Oils to force the oil to set at room temperature.  Hydrogen atoms are added to some of the double bonds of the unsaturated fatty acids in the oil. The more unsaturated fatty acids (such as the triunsaturated fatty acid or triene linolenic) are generally hydrogenated first; each double bond can take up two hydrogen atoms. Linolenic (18:3) that has one double bond hydrogenated becomes linoleic (18:2). A saturated fatty acid (such as palmitic 16:0 or stearic 18:0) has all the hydrogen it can hold.  This process results in an oil that solidifies at a temperature less than normal.  It’s benefits are obvious.

Hydrogenation also has several other functions.  A main further benefit is it improves the flavor stability and keeping qualities of an oil, especially by reducing or removing the content of highly reactive (tri-unsaturated) linolenic acid, thus preventing much of the oxidative rancidity and off-flavor development that might otherwise occur, especially after the oil is used for frying. An un-hydrogenated oil turns rancid by picking up oxygen at sites of unsaturation; hydrogenation blocks this by adding hydrogen at these points. 

However, over time as the world changed and turned a focus has shifted to the nutritional impacts of foods.  It was no secret that a major weakness of Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil is it’s nutritional values, or more specifically it’s nutritional hazards.  Over time, it was realized that this oil has many, many negative attributes.  

Note: Please also find the next interview and blog by Kermit Highfield of Southern Food & Snacks.  The next covers the FDA and shift to Palm Oil

A summary of these negative nutritional attributes of Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil are as follows:

  • The process of hydrogenation alters the physical make-up of edible oils.
  • Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fatty acids. 
  • Trans fats upset the balance between the good and bad cholesterol levels in your body.
  • They raise the bad fats and lower the good fats in your body. 
  • This combination is clearly linked to a myriad of lifestyle diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

In conclusion, as we entered the 21st century and people-focused more and more on healthy food items it became very apparent the “shelf-life” of Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oils was soon to expire.  People want the same physical and structural benefits, but without the negative health impacts.  More to follow.