CHICAGO — Today’s shoppers not only want more for their dollar — they also want more for their calories. And with fat being the most calorically dense nutrient at 9 calories per gram, the fat type matters to many consumers.

Eight in 10 consumers said they are seeking foods that offer nutrition profiles personalized to their needs, according to a 2023 report published by the consultancy Deloitte, New York. The result is up three percentage points from 2022 and up 18 points from 2021 and includes seeking functional fats with health halos.

“Most of these consumers are motivated by health considerations, such as reducing risk of heart disease, lowering cholesterol or losing weight,” said Jamie Mavec, senior marketing manager with Cargill, Minneapolis. “In fact, Fatitudes, Cargill’s consumer research, showed that half of all US consumers monitor fats and oils in food purchases.”

The Cargill survey, now in its 11th edition, reflects consumers’ evolving attitudes toward fat in the diet. Of those shoppers checking the ingredient list in 2023, 61% said they were doing so to avoid certain fats and oils, while 31% reported they are seeking specific fats and oils.

The survey asked consumers about the fats and oils they perceive as the healthiest. It also explored what consumers look for on package labels. Claims linked to health, such as “no saturated fat” generally scored higher than other types of claims, but consumers are influenced by other factors, too.

“In our latest survey, a third of consumers said they check labels for sustainability claims around fats and oils, and two in five said they were more likely to purchase products that carried those claims, which is up 17 percentages points since 2013,” Ms. Mavec said. “In 2023, we also found 45% of consumers said they were more likely to purchase products labeled as non-GMO. A similar number, 41%, said they were more likely to purchase products labeled as organic.

“Olive oil consistently ranks at the top. In 2023, 66% of consumers said they believe it is a healthful oil. A relative newcomer to our list, avocado oil, ranked second. It was perceived as a healthful oil by 59% of respondents.”

The challenge with both, along with other better-for-you oils, is they are composed of mostly polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are unstable and prone to oxidation. Oxidation produces a rancid, cardboard-like taste. Many of the fats also have a flavor reflective of its source, which may not complement the carrier product. A strawberry-flavored sports gel, for example, should not have hints of avocado.

Oxidation is less of an issue with saturated fats; however, science suggests eating too much saturated fat may raise the level of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the blood. It is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), Dallas.

Still, some saturated fats are gaining traction among the growing number of consumers following a keto lifestyle, which emphasizes high dietary fat intake and limits carbohydrates. Coconut oil, palm kernel oil and dairy fat, for example, are concentrated sources of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are saturated fats with molecular characteristics that allow them to behave differently inside the body compared to other fats. A significant difference is they bypass traditional digestion and become an instant energy source following consumption. In other words, the body starts to burn it faster than other fats.

While keto-friendly foods may favor saturated fats, most functional food formulators avoid them, just like consumers. Two out of five consumers said they try to limit or avoid saturated fats, according to the 2023 Food & Health Survey from the International Food Information Council, Washington. Another 28% try to be aware of the saturated fat content of foods.

“In recent years, the US Food and Drug Administration increased the recommended dietary allowance for total fats from 65 grams to 78 grams, while reducing the saturated fat recommendation from 22 grams to 20 grams,” said Rick Cummisford, director of quality, Columbus Vegetable Oils, Des Plaines, Ill. “This is a sign that fats are not all bad nor created equal and they continue to be important in maintaining a healthy diet and reducing and treating chronic diseases.”

Christian Sobolta, chief growth officer, CSM Ingredients, Bertrange, Luxembourg, said, “Fats are not only a fundamental part of the human diet; they also deliver taste and consistency features that are necessary in order to make products not only healthier and more sustainable, but also tasteful and rewarding for consumers. Furthermore, in products containing lipid-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), a certain amount of oil or fat is necessary to make these healthy molecules available to the body.

“Since a significant share of the population consumes too many saturated fatty acids, using unsaturated fats (as the carrier)could help eradicate this nutritional error. Using omega-3 fatty acids is a good way to contribute to the well-being of most people.”

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that support the structure of cells in the body and are concentrated in the cells of the brain and eyes. They also have been shown to have a positive effect on heart health and immunity.

“Some unsaturated oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, contain additional phytonutrients and beneficial antioxidants,” Mr. Cummisford said.

Michelle Peitz, technical solutions and marketing, oils, ADM, Chicago, said, “Utilizing highly polyunsaturated oils can be challenging, especially if used in shelf-stable products like cereals and nutritional bars. Formulators may consider incorporating these polyunsaturated oils at a ratio to get appropriate nutritional needs in a serving and then utilizing a high-stability oil, such as high-oleic sunflower oil or high-oleic soybean oil to provide the rest of the fat for the food product.”

High-oleic oils are popular in the functional food space. They have been shown in some diets to improve heart health and reduce bad cholesterol.

“In the nutritional food and beverage space, high-oleic sunflower oil is the most commonly used fat or oil,” said Isaak Brott, business development technical services manager, Cargill. “It delivers high stability over shelf life and offers several label advantages, including its naturally non-GMO status and its availability in organic options.

“Nutritionally, high-oleic sunflower oil is relatively low in saturated fats, a nutritional plus over other fats and oils. Functionally, its high oxidation stability over shelf life makes it a good choice for products stored at room temperature with longer shelf-life expectations, including plant-based beverages or nutrition bars.”

Formulations may often require an emulsifier to keep the fat ingredient in solution. In nutrition beverages, for example, emulsifiers are needed to keep oil and water in suspension.

“The coconut oil and MCTs used as sources of quick digestible energy in many beverage formulations require emulsifiers to keep the oils dispersed in the solution,” Mr. Cummisford said. “Lecithin is one such ingredient that can assist in this purpose.”

In functional beverages, oils often are used to carry vitamins and minerals that are oil soluble. They also impact viscosity.

“Oil ingredients can provide key body and mouthfeel attributes in plant-based functional beverages,” Ms. Peitz said. “Corn has been commonly used in this realm due to its linoleic content, which is an omega-6 essential fatty acid. Corn oil inherently contains plant sterols, a lipid-based ingredient that can be added to the formulation to reach nutritional goals in certain products. Sunflower, canola and soybean oils are also options for functional beverages. These oils have either omega-6 or omega-3 content that many developers are targeting.”

Tatania Emmick, commercial technical support manager, Kemin, Des Moines, Iowa, said, “Because many fats are a deliberate add to functional foods and beverages, they must be protected, especially the omega-3 fatty acids from foods like flax, chia and hemp, as well as fish and algae sources.”

Kemin offers antioxidant ingredients to delay oxidation, in addition to guidance on when and how to add. Antioxidants protect fats to extend shelf life.

“Our natural plant extracts can be used in either dry or liquid forms, depending on the manufacturer’s needs and operational setup,” Ms. Emmick said. “The dry natural plant extracts can be pre-blended with other ingredients used in formulation and offered in a pre-weighed batch pack, requiring less labor to add in all necessary ingredients. The liquid natural plant extracts can be added using metered application equipment to deliver the exact dosage.”

Fat and oil suppliers may already have included antioxidants in the lipid ingredient. Some suppliers offer custom blends of oils to achieve maximum shelf life and still deliver desirable fat profiles.

Unsaturated fats may lack the richness consumers enjoy from saturated fats, which are more solid and creamy. That’s where dairy concentrates may assist.

“Our ingredients provide functional effects by adding the mouthfeel and richness associated with recipes using full dairy fat,” said Michael Ivey, national sales director, Butter Buds Inc., Racine, Wis. “The usage rate is quite low and contributes minimally to a finished product’s nutritional value.”