Menu Innovations | January 2017 | By Barney Wolf

Quick Service’s Push for Healthier Cooking Oils

Operators make a healthier choice with their cooking and frying oils.
Chipotle uses non-GMO sunflower oil to fry its taco shells. Chipotle
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Oil pumped from the ground is often dubbed “black gold.” In that same vein, the popular oils used by chefs easily could be called “liquid gold.”

For years, cooking oils have been key to the limited-service restaurant industry, whether they’re used for frying, grilling, or any of a dozen other functions in the kitchen. And today, as consumers seek healthier choices, better-for-you oils have been part of that move, especially for restaurants in an increasingly challenging business environment.

“Anything a restaurant operator can do to make menu items healthier is a win,” says Bonnie Riggs, foodservice analyst with market research firm The NPD Group. “Consumers are showing they want better oils, fewer preservatives, cleaner ingredients.”

As with many other changes in the restaurant industry, this move is being fueled by younger diners, Riggs adds. “Millennials and generation Z are behind this ever-evolving, increasing desire for better-for-you menu alternatives. Because of the internet and social media, they are so much more savvy and aware of the impact things have on their bodies.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that restaurant companies began shifting away from partially hydrogenated oils, which have a long shelflife but are a major source of artificial trans fats. These fats increase so-called “bad” cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, according to researchers and dieticians.

The number of items on limited-service restaurant menus that include the terms partially hydrogenated or shortening among their nutritional lists continues to shrink. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given the food industry until 2018 to eliminate the heart-clogging ingredient, except for where it appears naturally, like meat and dairy products.

The restaurant industry uses a wide range of oils created from canola, soybeans, and other vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds. In limited service, much of the oil is employed in frying, something not popular among nutritionists and dieticians, even when using healthier oils.

“It’s not great to fry anything,” says Jessica Crandall, a registered dietician and general manager of Denver Wellness and Nutrition for foodservice giant Sodexo. “Fried foods aren’t beneficial when it comes to a nutritional point of view.”

It may be that fast-food and fast-casual chains will continue to prefer oils that draw less attention to themselves. But for concepts looking to differentiate themselves through the use of ingredients with claims to healthful properties and more novel tastes, the foregoing options offer some interesting possibilities.

This story originally appeared in QSR's January 2017 issue with the title "Striking Oil."

Oils are absorbed into food when it is fried, and a teaspoon of oil has about 120 calories. Eating large amounts of fried foods has been linked to a range of health problems, Crandall says.

Still, it’s not likely Americans are going to stop eating fried foods. As such, operators need to consider “how we handle the oil process and imparting the oil to food to make sure it can be the healthiest it possibly can be,” says Tina Swanson, vice president of customer experience for oil management company Restaurant Technologies. That includes not only using healthful oils, but also keeping controls over oils’ usage.

When diners visit a restaurant, they want to indulge in whatever that restaurant specializes in, whether it’s burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, or french fries, Riggs says. And taste continues to be paramount in the decision-making process, even if consumers want healthier food.

“Operators can still satisfy the need in the marketplace for better-for-you menu items by having healthier options like better-quality oils, less fat, and less salt,” she adds.

In all cooking, operators should focus on using “good, healthy oils” low in saturated fats, says Crandall, who is also a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

One of the most popular oils is canola, which has just 7 percent saturated fats, the same as low-fat nut oils. Sunflower, corn, soybean, and peanut oils are also under 20 percent in saturated fats.

For operators, balancing health with durability and cost is key. According to Restaurant Technologies, healthful, low-priced commodity canola oil has low endurance, while pricier high-oleic canola oil—high in good monounsaturated fats for longer shelf life—is more durable.

Choosing proper equipment also plays a role, Swanson says, by maintaining a constant temperature, making sure the oil doesn’t exceed its smoke point—the heat when the molecular structure of oil breaks down—and filtering.

“If the temperature is too low when cooking something like fries, for instance, they will be sitting in the oil longer, so more oil will be absorbed,” she says. “The more oil absorbed, no matter what the type is, the less healthy it becomes.”

French fries come in all sizes and shapes, and there are best practices in cooking them for the best crispness and color, says Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. That includes a two-step frying process for fresh-cut fries and maintaining a temperature between 330 and 375 F.

For most restaurants, one of the best practices now includes better-for-you frying oil, rather than those loaded with trans fats and saturated fat. “The majority of operators have moved to healthier oils,” Odiorne says. “Part of that was driven by the oil industry responding to consumers’ demand for cleaner taste and less fat. In just five years, we went from one extreme to the other.”

In addition, frozen fries manufacturers “have really turned the corner and are using cleaner blends [of oil] without all the fat in traditional frying methods,” he says.

While baking french fries may be healthier, Odiorne adds, few operators in limited service offer them because baking time makes it impractical at busy periods.

Soybean is the most popular oil used by Restaurant Technologies’ limited-service customers. However, when it comes to seeking perceived healthier oils, canola, sunflower, and olive oil often “resonate” with foodservice consumers, says Connie Tobin, foodservice oils marketing manager for Cargill Global Edible Oils Solutions, pointing to the company’s annual primary research study.

Better-for-you oils are definitely growing in use, says Diliara Iassonova, foodservice and innovation lead for the Cargill division. “We have two major trends in the industry, and one of them is healthier oil,” she says. The other trend is also related to health: clean label.

While olive oil is not often used in deep frying because of its cost, a number of operators have gone to premium, high-oleic canola and sunflower oils because they are low in saturated fats, have high smoke points, provide a neutral flavor, and are more durable. High-oleic oils cost more, but chefs like them as a single source of oil that can be used in a variety of applications.

Another oil that has gained some traction is peanut oil, which is relatively inexpensive with medium durability, a high smoke point, and a slightly nutty flavor. It’s usually not a problem for those with peanut allergies, as the proteins are removed during refining.

“I look at it as an enhancement of flavor,” says Patrick McDonnell, who works with the peanut industry as senior partner at restaurant consulting firm McDonnell Kinder & Associates in Kansas City. “The way the industry is going, you’re seeing more craft food and ingredients they haven’t been using before, like peanut oil.”

One company that has used peanut oil from the beginning is Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A.

“We started using it because it had a much cleaner taste than other products, and it has a high smoke point, so we could fry the chicken without it catching fire or smoking,” says Jodie Worrell, the company’s nutrition manager. Although some oil is driven into food anytime it is fried, peanut oil “is healthier than if you were using lard or heavier oils,” she says.

Chick-fil-A also employs canola oil on its grill and for waffle fries. It had used peanut oil for fries but switched “because we were concerned about the supply,” Worrell says.

Supply is also an issue for Chipotle, which uses non-GMO sunflower oil. As a result, the oil is now used only to fry its chips and taco shells, says Chris Arnold, the Denver chain’s spokesman. The fajitas at Chipotle are pan-fried with non-GMO rice bran oil, which has a slightly higher level of saturated fats.

Some types of healthier oils are popular in specific types of cuisine, such as sesame oil, which provides a nutty, toasty flavor in Asian cooking. Others, like avocado oil, are beginning to get noticed for their healthy fats, neutral taste, and high smoke point.

Olive oil is a staple in cooking pizza, so it’s not surprising that Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint uses lots of it—for dough, sauces, and grilling.

“The primary use of oil is our house garlic-infused olive oil,” says Jenelle Brown, vice president of training and human resources at the Atlanta-based chain. It is used by itself as a sauce on a line of pizzas and as part of other sauces.

The Mushroom and Truffle pizza, for instance, includes mixed mushrooms, prosciutto, fontina and shredded mozzarella cheeses, and the olive oil sauce. Then, after baking, it’s topped with arugula and shaved parmesan and drizzled with truffle oil.

“We use the extra virgin olive oil sparingly because it has a powerful flavor profile,” Brown says. The garlic-infused olive oil is also used to make dough, while grilled chicken and steak are cooked with a blend of canola and olive oil.

One frying oil, palm, has been popular in making doughnuts because it is trans fat–free. But it’s also received negative attention due to the oil’s high level of saturated fat, as well as its production, which carries environmental and sustainability issues.

As a result, Rise Biscuits & Donuts, based in Durham, North Carolina, moved to a trans fat–free, high-smoke-point soybean shortening that’s low in saturated fats.

“We did a lot of communication through social media, and palm oil was definitely a point of contention,” says Brian Wiles, chief operating officer at Rise. “This is a health-conscious area with a lot of well-educated folks concerned with the environment and who want to know what they are putting in their bodies—even if it’s doughnuts.”

That’s a big change from when Wiles first began making doughnuts with lard well before Rise began. “We are really happy with this soybean product and how it cooks.”

The chain’s biscuits are made with clarified butter, which is also employed on the griddle, while chicken and other fried foods are prepared in high-oleic canola oil.

There’s no frying at Jason’s Deli. Instead, the olive-canola oil blend is included in cooking everything from French onion soup and pasta salad to garlic toast and sandwiches.

“The canola is pretty much a neutral, while the olive oil provides nutty, fruity flavor that helps to balance out items,” says Brandon Hudson, research and development manager. “With the muffulettas, the briny, salty olives with the olive oil flavor are coated on the bread.”

The decision to use a blend was determined in part by the panini grill. “We want that olive oil flavor, but we couldn’t use straight olive oil because it wouldn’t last long,” Hudson says, pointing to that oil’s lower smoke point.

Jason’s Deli eschewed the oil, however, for its baked potatoes and grilled cheese sandwiches. Instead, Hudson says, it opts for butter, “just because on those two it tastes better.”