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A vegetable oil is a triglyceride extracted from a plant. Such oils have been part of human culture for millennia. The term “vegetable oil” can be narrowly defined as referring only to substances that are liquid at room temperature, or broadly defined without regard to a substance’s state of matter at a given temperature.For this reason, vegetable oils that are solid at room temperature are sometimes called vegetable fats. Vegetable oils are composed of triglycerides, as contrasted with waxes which lack glycerin in their structure. Although many plant parts may yield oil, in commercial practice, oil is extracted primarily from seeds.
Many vegetable oils are consumed directly, or indirectly as ingredients in food – a role that they share with some animal fats, including butter and ghee. The oils serve a number of purposes in this role:
- Shortening – to give pastry a crumbly texture.
- Texture – oils can serve to make other ingredients stick together less.
- Flavor – while less-flavorful oils command premium prices, some oils, such as olive, sesame, or almond oil, may be chosen specifically for the flavor they impart.
- Flavor base – oils can also “carry” flavors of other ingredients, since many flavors are present in chemicals that are soluble in oil.
Secondly, oils can be heated and used to cook other foods. Oils suitable for this objective must have a high flash point. Such oils include the major cooking oils – soybean, canola, sunflower, safflower, peanut, cottonseed, etc. Tropical oils, such as coconut, palm, and rice bran oils, are particularly valued in Asian cultures for high temperature cooking, because of their unusually high flash point.
Unsaturated vegetable oils can be transformed through partial or complete “hydrogenation” into oils of higher melting point. The hydrogenation process involves “sparging” the oil at high temperature and pressure with hydrogen in the presence of a catalyst, typically a powdered nickel compound. As each carbon–carbon double-bond is chemically reduced to a single bond, two hydrogen atoms each form single bonds with the two carbon atoms. The elimination of double bonds by adding hydrogen atoms is called saturation; as the degree of saturation increases, the oil progresses toward being fully hydrogenated. An oil may be hydrogenated to increase resistance to rancidity (oxidation) or to change its physical characteristics. As the degree of saturation increases, the oil’s viscosity and melting point increase.
The use of hydrogenated oils in foods has never been completely satisfactory. Because the center arm of the triglyceride is shielded somewhat by the end fatty acids, most of the hydrogenation occurs on the end fatty acids, thus making the resulting fat more brittle. A margarine made from naturally more saturated oils will be more plastic (more “spreadable”) than a margarine made from hydrogenated soy oil. While full hydrogenation produces largely saturated fatty acids, partial hydrogenation results in the transformation of unsaturated cis fatty acids to trans fatty acids in the oil mixture due to the heat used in hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated oils and their trans fats have been linked to an increased risk of mortality from coronary heart disease (CHD)., among other increased health risks.
In the US, the Standard of Identity for a product labeled as “vegetable oil margarine” specifies only canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, or peanut oil may be used. Products not labeled “vegetable oil margarine” do not have that restriction.
Vegetable oils are used as an ingredient or component in many manufactured products.
Many vegetable oils are used to make soaps, skin products, candles, perfumes and other personal care and cosmetic products. Some oils are particularly suitable as drying oils, and are used in making paints and other wood treatment products. Dammar oil (a mixture of linseed oil and dammar resin), for example, is used almost exclusively in treating the hulls of wooden boats. Vegetable oils are increasingly being used in the electrical industry as insulators as vegetable oils are not toxic to the environment, biodegradable if spilled and have high flash and fire points. However, vegetable oils are less stable chemically, so they are generally used in systems where they are not exposed to oxygen, and they are more expensive than crude oil distillate. Synthetic tetraesters, which are similar to vegetable oils but with four fatty acid chains compared to the normal three found in a natural ester, are manufactured by Fischer esterification. Tetraesters generally have high stability to oxidation and have found use as engine lubricants. Vegetable oil is being used to produce biodegradable hydraulic fluid and lubricant.
One limiting factor in industrial uses of vegetable oils is that all such oils eventually chemically decompose, turning rancid. Oils that are more stable, such as ben oil or mineral oil, are preferred for some industrial uses.
Vegetable-based oils, like castor oil, have been used as medicine and as lubricants for a long time. Castor oil has numerous industrial uses, primarily due to the presence of hydroxyl groups on the fatty acid chains. Castor oil, and other vegetable oils which have been chemically modified to contain hydroxyl groups, are becoming increasingly important in the production of polyurethane plastic for many applications. These modified vegetable oils are known as natural oil polyols.
Pet food additive
Vegetable oil is used in production of some pet foods. Vegetable oil, in this context, is defined as the product of vegetable origin obtained by extracting the oil from seeds or fruits which are processed for edible purposes. In some poorer grade pet foods, the oil is listed only as “vegetable oil”, without specifying the particular oil.
Vegetable oil fuel
Vegetable oils are also used to make biodiesel, which can be used like conventional diesel. Some vegetable oil blends are used in unmodified vehicles but straight vegetable oil, also known as pure plant oil, needs specially prepared vehicles which have a method of heating the oil to reduce its viscosity. The vegetable oil economy is growing and the availability of biodiesel around the world is increasing.
The production process of vegetable oil involves the removal of oil from plant components, typically seeds. This can be done via mechanical extraction using an oil mill or chemical extraction using a solvent. The extracted oil can then be purified and, if required, refined or chemically altered.
Oils can also be removed via mechanical extraction, termed “crushing” or “pressing.” This method is typically used to produce the more traditional oils (e.g., olive, coconut etc.), and it is preferred by most “health-food” customers in the United States and in Europe. There are several different types of mechanical extraction. Expeller-pressing extraction is common, though the screw press, ram press, and Ghani (powered mortar and pestle) are also used. Oil seed presses are commonly used in developing countries, among people for whom other extraction methods would be prohibitively expensive; the Ghani is primarily used in India. The amount of oil extracted using these methods varies widely, as shown in the following table for extracting mowrah butter in India.
The processing vegetable oil in commercial applications is commonly done by chemical extraction, using solvent extracts, which produces higher yields and is quicker and less expensive. The most common solvent is petroleum-derived hexane. This technique is used for most of the “newer” industrial oils such as soybean and corn oils.
Supercritical carbon dioxide can be used as a non-toxic alternative to other solvents.
Oils may be partially hydrogenated to produce various ingredient oils. Lightly hydrogenated oils have very similar physical characteristics to regular soy oil, but are more resistant to becoming rancid. Margarine oils need to be mostly solid at 32 °C (90 °F) so that the margarine does not melt in warm rooms, yet it needs to be completely liquid at 37 °C (98 °F), so that it doesn’t leave a “lardy” taste in the mouth.
Hardening vegetable oil is done by raising a blend of vegetable oil and a catalyst in near-vacuum to very high temperatures, and introducing hydrogen. This causes the carbon atoms of the oil to break double-bonds with other carbons, each carbon forming a new single-bond with a hydrogen atom. Adding these hydrogen atoms to the oil makes it more solid, raises the smoke point, and makes the oil more stable.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils differ in two major ways from other oils which are equally saturated. During hydrogenation, it is easier for hydrogen to come into contact with the fatty acids on the end of the triglyceride, and less easy for them to come into contact with the center fatty acid. This makes the resulting fat more brittle than a tropical oil; soy margarines are less “spreadable”[compared to?]. The other difference is that trans fatty acids (often called trans fat) are formed in the hydrogenation reactor, and may amount to as much as 40 percent by weight of a partially hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenated oils, especially partially hydrogenated oils with their higher amounts of trans fatty acids are increasingly thought to be unhealthy.
In the processing of edible oils, the oil is heated under vacuum to near the smoke point, and water is introduced at the bottom of the oil. The water immediately is converted to steam, which bubbles through the oil, carrying with it any chemicals which are water-soluble. The steam sparging removes impurities that can impart unwanted flavors and odors to the oil.
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