Providing a potential solution everybody was looking for, two Canadian food scientists have created a replacement for palm oil.
Their invention replicates how the body creates triglycerides, and can hold liquid vegetable fats in a solid form at room temperature—the key advantage of palm oil.
The researchers’ oil could be used as a replacement for the problematic palm product in a variety of pre-prepared foods like peanut butters, cookies and pizza crust, as well as in cosmetics and even toothpaste.
If you’ve ever seen the words “no palm oil” displayed proudly on a jar of peanut butter or other foodstuffs, it’s because palm oil is perhaps the largest isolated cause of tropical deforestation in the world.
Nations and companies often try and wash their hands of the oil palm crop due to its tendency to create deforestation. The English city of Chester proudly proclaims itself the first “sustainable palm oil city,” while Norway straight up banned palm oil imports from plantations linked with deforestation.
A combination of previous scientific findings and outstanding natural qualities created a 20-year explosion in the cultivation and use of palm oil in global food production. 34% of the world’s vegetable oil comes from the oil palm tree, of which 84% comes from merely two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, where highly biodiverse tropical rainforest has been cut down to make way for oil palm plantations.
The advantages of palm oil became ascendent during the 1980s and 1990s, after nutritionists began broadly warning about the disastrous health effects of eating partially hydrogenated oils and trans-fats. Producers began substituting those harmful fats with palm oil for several reasons.
Capable of remaining as a solid in room temperature due to its high saturated fat content, palm oil rapidly became the prime choice for manufacturers, not least because production is nearly 500% more per-acre than the next most-productive vegetable oil crop, sunflower oil.
For Alejandro Marangoni, a food scientist at the University of Guelph, the challenge was how to create an oil that would stay solid at room temperature, and one that preferably didn’t contain as much saturated fat content as something like coconut oil.
Saturated fat, while necessary in many processes of our biology including the synthesis of testosterone, is capable of exacerbating risks for coronary heart disease when consumed in large portions by individuals with unhealthy lifestyles such as sedentary days or late-night eating habits.
Marangoni is far from the first scientist to have given it a go. Last year two-former baristas attempted to synthesize a substitute from coffee grounds.
Marangoni on the other hand used a process he called enzymatic glycerolysis, inspired by the way the body naturally produces triglycerides. He combined enzymes with glycerin to produce solid vegetable oil without adding any additional saturated fats.