Quirks & Quarks

Canadian food scientists develop eco-friendly substitutes for palm oil

Technique involves transforming liquid oils into solid fats

Technique involves transforming liquid oils into solid fats

Prof. Alejandro Marangoni (right) and PhD student Reed Nicholson(left) were able to produce solid fats from liquid vegetable oils as a substitute for palm oil. (Stacie Dobson)

Food scientists at the University of Guelph have come up with a new method for turning liquid vegetable oils into solid fats. The result is a healthier and more sustainable substitute for palm oil that could be used in prepared foods like cookies and pizza crust, as well as cosmetics, shampoo and toothpaste.

Palm oil: the good and bad

In the 1990s, scientists became concerned about the potential cardiovascular health concerns from hydrogenated, trans and animal fats. Animal fats also created ethical and religious issues for some consumers.

That's when palm oil started to became widely used as an alternative. It was inexpensive, widely available and it had the functionality required for the food industry.

This picture shows a worker loading palm oil fruits onto a truck at a plantation in the Nagan Raya district in Aceh province. In Indonesia, rainforests are razed to create industrial palm oil plantations, releasing massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP via Getty Images)

But palm oil came with its own issues. To meet demand, forests in many tropical areas around the world were destroyed and replaced by the more lucrative palm oil plantations. And it turns out palm oil isn't such a healthy alternative after all because it is also high in saturated fats. However, it did fill an important niche. 

A solid solution

For Alejandro Marangoni, a food scientist at the University of Guelph, the solution was to find a way to produce solid fat from a vegetable source that could replace palm oil.

In a new study, he describes a process inspired by the way the human body makes triglycerides, or body fat.

Marangoni mixed enzymes with glycerine to turn liquid vegetable oils into solid fats without adding any saturated fats.

This process was tested successfully to produce peanut butter and margarine.

A wooden hut stands among burnt land next to a palm oil plantation in Indonesia (REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan )

The process is more sustainable and affordable because food producers all over the world can use a variety of oils from  crops including rice, cottonseed and peanut. It is unlikely palm oil will ever be completely replaced, so the idea is to simply curb its use. 

Produced and written by Mark Crawley

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