Iowa State University innovator gaining national interest for new ‘healthy’ fat technology

Man in lab coat in laboratory
Rodrigo Tarté, assistant professor in Iowa State's Department of Animal Science, in his laboratory. Photo by Kathryn Gamble. 

AMES, Iowa — An Iowa State University meat scientist is a leading innovator in the search for new fats that offer more choices to health-conscious consumers.

Rodrigo Tarté, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, is at the forefront of research to find alternatives for saturated animal fats that retain the original products’ desirable qualities of taste, texture and appearance.

“While animal fats can be part of a healthy diet,” Tarté said, “a growing number of people want to reduce or avoid them. The meat industry is trying to adapt, and that’s where these new fats fit in.”

A new technology Tarté developed in collaboration with Nuria Acevedo, formerly of Iowa State’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, uses a biphasic gel with both water- and oil-based components that can simulate solid and semi-solid animal fats. This result overcomes a big industry challenge – it can hold up well as a replacement for semi-solid animal fats in foods like sausages, salami or bratwurst. The new gel could also replace highly saturated vegetable-based fats, like coconut and palm oils, used in trendy vegetarian meat substitutes.

An earlier oleogel the researchers created was a softer, oil-based product best suited to simulate fat in homogenous products, like processed lunch meats. This new gel, in contrast, has very similar “mouthfeel” and appearance as solid fat and holds up to being ground and further processed as part of meat or meat-like products that have larger, chunkier fat particles that give them a distinctive texture.

“This technology can allow food processors to tailor the fatty acid profiles of their products while turning out items that taste and perform very much like the original,” Tarté said. “It can replace fat on a one-to-one basis, using a combination of water and unsaturated plant-based oils like soybean oil, so it reduces fat overall and also uses those that might be considered more healthful.”

Tarté and Acevedo’s work, supported primarily by the United Soybean Board, reflects years of trial and error in the lab where the most promising outcomes were scaled up for inclusion in meat products. First, they put their experimental products through a battery of tests to analyze properties like texture, color, appearance, oxidative stability, freeze-thaw stability and microscopic structure. Those that performed well then went to sensory taste-testing panels to see if humans picked up on any differences.

“We’re at the point now where we have a proven concept,” Tarté said. “We’re working on refinements. For example, the flavor of the product still needs some work, but this is very solvable.” 

One of the primary drawbacks to the biphasic gel is that it requires both hot and cold processes to produce, whereas meat processors work almost solely in cold environments. As a result, Tarté envisions the new fats would be sourced from a third-party, as is the case with many other food components.

The work is gaining attention and industry buzz: The magazine “Meatingplace” recently lauded Tarté as an independent thinker and thoughtful innovator in product research and development. At this year’s annual meeting of the American Meat Science Association, his team’s poster presentation outlining the recent research was selected as one of the top two abstracts.  

“It’s exciting,” Tarté said. “This technology represents the next frontier in the simulation of semi-solid fats, especially animal fats that haven’t had a good replacement. But it has potential for other products, too. It could even be used to deliver bioactive compounds like medicines or supplements, in ways that increase their potential health benefits.”