A team of scientists in Scotland have discovered what they are hailing as a high-class alternative to the popular yet controversial palm oil which is abundantly used throughout the F&B industry. The plant-based substitute caters to food formulators looking to clean up their label and move away from palm oil over-reliance, something which the industry has been debating for years.
PALM-ALT is a palm fat replacer that scientists claim can reduce the industry’s dependence on palm oil, which is often linked to deforestation and for many consumers is considered an ingredient to avoid.
It is 100% plant-based, 25% lower in total fat and 88% less in saturated fat. The novel ingredient enables food formulators who look for tasty, low-fat products, but are seeking a more sustainable and environmentally friendly ingredient in line with the expectations of global consumers.
It is also allergen-free, coconut-free and has no added sugar, sweeteners, flavorings or colorings, the researchers state.
The novel ingredient can be used to maintain bakery products’ texture, color and flavor, and be applied to cakes and biscuits.
Dr. Julien Lonchamp, reader in food science and Catriona Liddle, head of the Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation (SCFDI) at the Queen Margaret University (QMU), Edinburgh, formulated the latest palm substitute.
The researchers invite food manufacturers to test this alternative in their formulations.
“Industry partners are welcome to test our ingredients in their formulations to assess if it matches their technical and commercial requirements in comparison to the use of palm shortening,” Dr. Lonchamp tells Food Ingredients First.
“Our ingredient offers benefits in terms of environmental sustainability and nutritional composition, so this may be of interest to companies who want to lead on these fronts.”
Better than palm oil?
Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees. Due to its widespread use in the food industry and over-cultivation, it has come under the radar of regulatory authorities, with the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) demanding that companies making palm oil, coffee, cocoa and soy ensure that products sold in the region have not contributed to deforestation.
The alternative fat can be used in bakery products while maintaining their texture, color, and flavor (Image credit: Queen Margaret University). The ingredient is currently used in many baked foods and the scientists at QMU believe that their palm fat substitute is healthier and more eco-friendly than the oil.
“Despite efforts to develop more sustainable cultivation practices, the industry has found it difficult to identify another fat that delivers the cost benefits and physical characteristics such as bland taste, food shelf life and ambient storage that palm offers and is not linked with health concerns. Currently, there is no palm oil replacement that is sustainable, healthy, and cost-effective,” underscores Liddle.
She points out that the current production methods leading to the deforestation of tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia have destroyed animals’ natural habitats and high greenhouse gas emissions linked to global transport.
This is worrying, since companies are still not mitigating their deforestation-linked risks, with only one in ten acting on it, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project.
However, the World Resources Institute recently pointed out that Indonesia has lowered its deforestation rate by 65% since 2015, which is higher than other countries over the same period.
“It is therefore essential to develop an alternative product, which works well for the food industry and helps reduce the world’s over-reliance on palm,” Liddle adds.
“PALM-ALT is a semi-solid functional fat which we are developing as a substitute for palm shortening and addresses the issues of environmental sustainability and health impact of this product segment,” states Dr. Lonchamp.
He underlines that if used by the food industry to replace palm oil, it has the potential to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the impact of food miles and deforestation of global rainforests associated with palm production.
While not meant for cooking, the novel substitute for palm shortening has the potential for application in a range of food products in addition to bakeries that require this semi-solid texture, he further tells us.
Meanwhile, other industrial efforts in reducing palm oil include AAK’s AkoVeg 117-14, a palm-free solution that can be used to formulate plant-based chicken nuggets.
An upcycled, cost-effective alternative
At the heart of the innovation is a by-product, which can be produced locally at a global scale and is also cost-competitive.
The team optimized the formulation of the novel ingredient from a specific combination of linseed by-product, fiber and rapeseed oil.To achieve the suitable synergy and functionality needed for formulating the palm fat replacer, the researchers screened various sustainable food materials and industry by-products.
The team then “optimized the formulation of the novel ingredient based on a specific combination of linseed by-product, fiber and rapeseed oil and a specific process.”
Rapeseed has also caught the attention of food tech companies like Cano-ela, which recently developed a technique to upcycle the ingredient and extract the oil, protein and fiber from it to reduce waste.
The scientists’ efforts have come to fruition after four years of research, from screening studies for finding suitable raw materials up to working on an Innovate UK-funded project (Sustainable Innovation Fund), which supports promising ideas that prioritize biodiversity, the climate and sustainability.
The research team has patented the PALM-ALT composition and process and is currently in discussions with several partners to implement the novel palm replacer at the industry level.