Phase oil is probably not something you’ve ever heard of, or even considered cooking with, but you’ve probably eaten it. It’s a common butter substitute that is used in many restaurants and hotels, primarily for frying but can also be added to baked goods and other recipes. Created by Ventura Foods, Phase Liquid Butter Alternative contains a number of very unhealthy ingredients, outlined below, which is why you should be concerned about eating it.
- Liquid and hydrogenated soybean oil: Phase contains 18 percent saturated fat and 1.5 grams of trans fat per tablespoon.
- TBHQ: Tertiary butylhydroquinone, an antioxidant commonly added to fry oils to retard spoilage and make them better suited for heavy-duty use.
- Soy Lecithin: Also found in baked goods, margarine, chocolate and ice cream, this common constituent of animal and plant tissues, lecithin is a source of the nutrient choline. It keeps oil and water from separating out, retards rancidity, reduces spattering in a frying pan, and leads to fluffier cakes. Major natural sources are egg yolk and soybeans.
- Dimethylpolysiloxane: A polymer composed of alternating silicon and oxygen atoms and having two methyl groups attached; it can, depending on molecular weight, have properties ranging from oils to plastics.
So why do restaurants use a product that has such a questionable health profile? Chef Marcus Guiliano, owner of Aroma Thyme Bistro and author of the blog Chefs on a Mission, spoke with a representative from Ventura foods. “He even said it himself: it’s a great way to cut corners on cost.” Guiliano explains that the highly processed vegetable oil is a more stable price as a commodity, and also doesn’t require refrigeration and has a nearly indefinite shelf-life.
Another concern that Guiliano brought up is that the oils used in butter substitutes like Phase are extracted with hexane, which is a petroleum-based solvent. Not only does this process produce an oil that is less healthy than an oil which is extracted by an expeller press, it may also leave trace amount of contamination. “I don’t know what their official stance on residuals is, but you’re using a chemical to extract an oil.”
Although it’s more expensive, Guiliano uses high-oleic safflower oil and sunflower oil in his own restaurant. These oils are high in omaga-3 fatty acids, but low in omega-6s. Although the body needs both types of omega fatty acids, the average American is consuming many times more omega-6s than they need, which can lead to inflammation problems. He also says that organic butter and even lard, if used in moderation, are better than highly processed products full of additives. “I think a lot of people might know of the healthy benefits,” says Guiliano of these higher cost oils. “I don’t think they really know the health detriments to a lot of things that they do.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Phase is not that it’s an unhealthy ingredient, but that it represents one of the many things that could be lurking in the dish you order at your local diner. “My take is that people have no idea of what they are eating when they eat out in chain restaurants,” says Mary Hartley, RD, our resident dietitian. “They look at the pretty pictures on the glossy menus and don’t think about what’s in the food.”
You should feel comfortable asking your servers about how dishes are prepared and what’s in them. There are restaurants like Aroma Thyme Bistro throughout the country that specialize in serving dishes made with only healthy ingredients, but unfortunately these are in the minority. To truly know what’s in your food, cook mostly at home and dine out as an occasional treat.