KANSAS CITY — Sustainability concerns have given food companies reason to consider altering their approaches to palm oil, a commodity linked to deforestation. Companies should be aware researchers are investigating how oils produced with yeast or algae may serve as palm oil alternatives, but currently little is available commercially. Processing steps such as interesterification are other options for replacing palm oil, and palm oil may be certified sustainable through groups like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

ResearchAndMarkets.com, Dublin, Ireland, forecast the global palm oil market to have a compound annual growth rate of 4.1% from 2022-28, increasing to $67.6 billion from $53.1 billion. Yields of palm oil are 5 to 10 times higher than other leading vegetable oil crops, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com, adding palm oil also has a longer shelf life and costs less than other vegetable oils on the market.

“Palm oil is naturally high in saturated fat but without hydrogenation and worry of trans fatty acids,” said Paulette Gagliardo, president of Columbus Vegetable Oils, Des Plaines, Ill. “The palm oils and fractions of palm oils can be blended to yield shortening product with ideal textures and melt profiles to be used in many baked goods and other products where structured fats are needed.”

Action in Europe

Thirty-four percent of US adults responding in the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2023 Food and Health Survey said environmental sustainability highly impacts their decisions to buy foods and beverages, and the European Union takes an even stricter approach to sustainability issues like deforestation. The European Union’s renewable energy directive requires palm oil-based fuels to be phased out by 2030. The EU cited the fact that deforestation accounts for 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Without regulatory intervention, the EU’s consumption and production of the six commodities of cattle, cocoa, coffee, oil, palm, soybeans and wood would rise to about 248,000 hectares (613,000 acres) of deforestation annually by 2030.

Innovation in palm oil alternatives is taking place in the European Union.

CSM Ingredients, Luxembourg, recently opened a new innovation center in Delmenhorst, Germany, dedicated to fats, oils and emulsifiers. One area of research involves discovering substitutes for plant-based oils that impact the environment. The company seeks to find ways to obtain microbial oils produced by yeast or algae and grown using a variety of renewable feedstocks in various conditions.

“In a lot of food products, a fat is necessary to provide structure and plasticity at storage and processing temperature but also melts at body temperature not to leave a tallowy sensation in the mouth,” said Nils Hinrichsen, head of the innovation center for fats, oils and emulsifiers at CSM Ingredients. “Such fats are needed for example in bakery margarines and fat-based fillings, but also in blocked frying fats, instant culinary products (dried soups) or in confectionery fillings. This melting behavior could be realized by either a hydrogenated liquid oil or a fat that is naturally solid at room temperature and melts approximately at 37° C (98.6° F).

“The key to a solid fat with above-mentioned properties is the right blend of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Plants that are growing in Europe mostly produce unsaturated fatty acids. Specific microbes like yeasts or certain algae also produce saturated fatty acids and thus could deliver the desired properties.”

He added the microorganisms producing the oil need to be fed, and the feed depends on the type of organism.

“Yeasts normally need carbohydrates, for example sugar, but also a blend of well-dosed minerals to grow properly,” Mr. Hinrichsen said. “In theory it is also possible to provide the nutrients by using byproducts of the production of other foodstuffs or even waste, but there are currently still legal barriers to use, for example food waste for the production of food oils.”

Most microbe oils currently are produced in lab or pilot scale, he said.

“Some very small volumes are already available, but for a very high price,” he said. “To have the oil in reasonable quantities for the majority of food products, it is still a long way, but I am sure that we will see a growing number of products containing microbe oils and fats in the next years.”

Clean Food Group in the United Kingdom owns a proprietary technology platform that uses yeast strains and food waste as its food source to create alternatives to traditional oil and fat ingredients. In August 2022 Clean Food Group acquired the intellectual property and the process developed by a research team based in the University of Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering as part of an investment of up to £1.8 million. The cell culture-based alternative could help reduce the detrimental environmental impact of palm-based ingredients.

C16 Biosciences, a tech startup based in New York City, produces ingredients to decarbonize consumer product supply chains. The company has launched Palmless, a consumer-facing brand and palm oil alternative eventually for use in beauty, personal care, home care and food applications. Currently Palmless is offered solely for use in beauty products. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, founded by Bill Gates, led a $20 million Series A investment round for C16 Biosciences in 2020.

Tradeoffs with alternatives

Several factors arise when replacing palm oil in applications.

“It’s also important to understand that with most applications, there may be tradeoffs, including implications around cost, supply chain and product labels/ingredient statements,” said John Satumba, PhD, global bakery technical lead and regional R&D director for North America, global edible oil solutions for Cargill, Minneapolis. “For example, in a bakery application that requires structure, product developers will likely need to replace palm oil with a shortening that requires additional processing, such as interesterification, hydrogenation or blending, which will have ramifications for ingredient statements. Similarly, palm oil alternatives may also require antioxidants, to improve stability and achieve shelf-life goals, and these additives will need to be called out on ingredient declarations.”

In some instances, it may be possible to replace palm oil with a liquid oil, but the majority of bakery applications will require more structure.

“For these situations, there are a range of options, including blends that combine hard fats with liquid oils and solutions made with additional processing, such as interesterification or hydrogenation,” Dr. Satumba said.

Ms. Gagliardo of Columbus Vegetable Oils added, “Palm oil is reasonably economical, and there are limits to other fats and oils that will provide similar performance or properties. There are of course animal fats that can have similar properties to palm oils, but there are also interesterified fats being used, too. These interesterified fats are simply blends of a hard fat (usually fully hydrogenated oils) mixed with liquid vegetable oils and then in turn chemically reacted to allow the fats to rearrange and now provide unique properties that the blend did not provide. These IE fats are readily available and typically more expensive than the palm oil products.”

Certifications increase

Boycotting palm oil because of its impact on the environment and wildlife would not reduce the impact, according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Oils such as sunflower, rapeseed and soy have lower yields than palm, meaning more land is needed to make the same amount of oil.

The RSPO certification process seeks to halt deforestation, treat communities and workers fairly, and protect wildlife and the environment. By the end of 2021 the RSPO had over 5,400 members, and 4.5 million hectares (11.1 million acres) of land were certified RSPO.

Cargill produces palm oil that meets RSPO standards.

“In North America, we offer RSPO-certified segregated palm oil, palm olein and palm stearin,” said Catalina Roman, sustainability lead for Cargill’s global edible oil solutions in North America. “Segregated certified palm oil products must be produced according to the principles and criteria established by the RSPO, which verifies that forests are protected, and social and environmental safeguards
are met during the oil’s production and harvest. To carry the segregated RSPO designation, all product must be kept separate from commodity palm oil supplies and be traceable throughout the supply chain. It is produced on RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil plantations and refined at RSPO-certified facilities.

“Key to ensuring we have sufficient quantities of RSPO-segregated products available for our North American customers is our investment in a new palm oil refinery in Lampung, Indonesia. When the facility comes online later this year, it will enable a fully integrated supply chain from plantation to customer.”