Seed oils – the next free-from?

Signs are that this emergent free-from could grow just as gluten-free did…

It’s a controversial idea: that commonly used oils such as canola, sunflower and soybean may be negative for health. But it’s an idea that is quietly catching on with a niche of the most health-forward consumers – and is backed by a growing body of science.

After 50 years of being promoted as one of the healthiest choices consumers can make, vegetable oils – the name used to describe the seed oils sunflower, canola and soy – are in trouble. A small but fast-growing percentage of consumers in the US and Europe are trying to avoid them. Why?

Seed oils are a relatively new part of western diets, and modern diets contain 20 times more seed oils than 100 years ago. That oversupply of omega-6 fatty acids – and in particular linoleic acid – is increasingly being flagged by credible academic researchers as a source of inflammation and a contributor to diseases of metabolic syndrome.

The fact that most oils in the diet are industrially processed and easily oxidised is also thought to be a contributor to inflammatory problems.

The science is controversial, but the debate is being picked up both by mainstream and social media and it is influencing the thinking of health-active consumers.

In response, a wide range of food companies – from giants like Mondelez down to small challenger brands – are beginning to review their use of ‘industrial seed oils’ and, where they can, communicate that their brands are free-from. It’s an emergent free-from, but these free-froms have a habit of growing and becoming important in strategy.

This emergent ‘free from’ is already seeing the commercialisation of new technology and changes in some food service outlets and supermarkets. In the US, a coalition of seed-oil free brands, called Clean Oil Crew, is carving out a new path and showing how companies can cut seed oils from recipes.

“The lesson of food history is that it’s best not to dismiss emergent trends just because we don’t agree with them,” says Julian Mellentin, author of a new report, Seed oils – the next free-from? 

“The science is controversial, and whether the health concerns have a good foundation or not, the fact remains that a small but growing number of consumers and brands are taking them seriously,” adds Mellentin, who is director of New Nutrition Business, a food industry consultancy and publisher.

A five-country consumer survey by New Nutrition Business shows that an average of 6% of consumers are already avoiding seed oils – from 4% in the US to as many as 10% in Spain.

The new report explores the rise of this potential free-from and the scientific evidence behind it, as well as looking at what companies and brands can do to negotiate the emerging “seed oil free” landscape.

“At New Nutrition Business we’re not taking sides in this controversy,” says Mellentin. “But it’s worth remembering that back in the 1990s the emergent gluten-free attribute was derided as an unscientific fad, and only for diagnosed coeliacs.

“Gluten-free went on to become one of the most common messages in the supermarket, with around 25% of consumers favouring products that are gluten-free and multiple successful brands built around the proposition.”

The new Strategy Briefing, Seed oils – the next free-from? is available here:

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