“Fat”, or more technically “triglycerides”, which are combinations of fatty acids and glycerol, is an integral component of the foods we eat. Fat is a very rich source of energy (i.e. calories) and certain vitamins which are critical to good health. While seemingly maligned by proponents of a healthy eating style, they are actually an excellent example of the precept of “everything in moderation.”
For many years the main source of fat in the diet came from animal sources – either as meat or as milkfat. Butter is an ancient source of milkfat, as are cheese and other products using whole milk. The quality of meat was historically based on the amount of fat, or marbling, that was laced through the meat, since fat adds flavor and tenderness. [USDA Prime beef was most heavily marbled, followed by Choice, and then Good].
For these reasons animals were bred to produce milk with the highest level of butterfat and abundance of fat in the meat. Until fairly recently vegetable sources of fats were limited to olive oil. At about the turn of the century, however, two advances were made which allowed many other vegetable oil sources to be exploited. Most crude vegetable oils contain substantial amounts of impurities which affect the taste and color of the oil. This problem was resolved with the development of the process of deodorization.
The second problem was that most vegetable oils are fluid at room temperature and are not suitable for solid shortening. This was also solved with the process of hydrogenation, whereby hydrogen atoms are added to the fatty acid molecule to harden oil. [This process also creates trans fatty acids which may be unhealthful for some people — see further in the article concerning Appetize.] These two developments allowed vegetable fats to compete successfully with lard and tallow.
Research into the effect of diet on health, however, has indicated that too much fat in the diet is not desirable, and may cause heart disease and other health problems. In addition, all fat is not created equal. A typical dietary fat is composed of a mixture of various fatty acids chains – fatty acids with different numbers of carbon atoms attached. It is felt that certain fatty acids may be more beneficial, while others less healthful, in the diet. Other components of fat – certain types of cholesterol – have been shown to have a negative effect on health. Since cholesterol is only found in animal fat, vegetable fat has been the fat of choice for many people. Nevertheless, too much of any fat is not very healthful.
In recent years food technologists have tried to find ways to reduce the amount of fat in foods without compromising its flavor, and these efforts have led to the development of a number of fat replacers.
Olestra. (Procter & Gamble) This product has been approved by the FDA and has received significant coverage in the press. This product is a true fat which has been modified in such a way that it is not digested at all — zero calories! — and is one of the few fat replacers that can be used for frying. Concerns have been raised as to possible side effects of the product, but it is now being used to produce fat free snacks on a limited basis. The product is certified Kosher.
Benefat. (Cultor) This product is also produced from modified oils but is partially digestible. It is presently used in Hershey’s Reduced Fat Chocolate Chips which are certified Kosher.
Simplesse. (Nutrasweet) This product is a microparticulate (very tiny particles) of whey protein which create the slippery sensation of fat by acting as miniature ball bearings in the mouth. Since this product is not a fat, it cannot be used for frying or baking. It is used in ice cream and cheese, and is certified Kosher Dairy.
Starch Based and Gum Fat Replacers. Several companies have formulated blends of starches and gums to mimic some of the properties of fats. Again, they are not suitable for cooking or frying and are generally used in salad dressings and ice creams. Many are certified Kosher Pareve.
Fruit Puree and Sugars. The puree of certain dried fruits (such as prunes) can impart fat characteristics to baked goods. They are often used in fat-free cookies, as are sugar blends. These ingredients tend to retain moisture in the product allowing for the reduction in the use of fat. Please note that although such products may be fat free, the added sugars used may offset much of the calorie savings from the elimination of fat.
Margarine. One of the first attempts to make a fat substitute was margarine. Butter had become too expensive for the peasants of France in the 1830’s, and Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could develop an economical alternative to this diet staple. This new product – margarine – was originally made by mixing tallow and cream and was never a Kosher product. Political intrigue also dogged this competitor of the dairy industry in the United States in the form of discriminatory legislation and taxes – the dairy industry even tried to have a law passed that all margarine be colored pink to discourage its use! Margarine was eventually produced from vegetable oils, much of which is Kosher certified (although some margarine is still made from lard and tallow). Regular margarine is about 85% oil and 15% water based fluid (which often includes dairy components) as much fat and the same number of calories as butter. It was never intended as a fat replacer, although vegetable versions are cholesterol free. Low Fat margarine is produced by reducing the amount of fat and increasing the aqueous portion of the margarine. Since water and oil do not readily mix, additives must be used to allow the two to bind together. Gelatin has been used for this purpose, and such low fat margarines are not Kosher. Fortunately, recent advances have allowed for other additives to be used for this purpose and these products may indeed be Kosher certified.
Appetize. (Bunge) Unfortunately, not all attempts to modify fats in the diet yield Kosher results. A new process has been developed to remove cholesterol from animal fats. The manufacturer claims that Appetize is more healthful than the hydrogenated oils used in vegetable margarine and shortening since this product contains no trans fatty acids. While this issue is far from settled, it may pose a significant problem for Kosher supervision. Heretofore, Kosher programs had dovetailed with the prevalent notions of healthful foods – vegetable oils were considered inherently more healthful than animal fats. Were an animal fat product to be perceived as a healthier alternative to vegetable fat, Kosher programs may lose some of the synergy that has been enjoyed from health concerns in the past.