Potential palm oil substitute developed by College of Guelph researchers

A research team at the University of Guelph has found a way to process oils that could lead to a better substitute for palm oil, which is common in many kinds of packaged foods but is environmentally costly to produce.

By adding enzymes and glycerol to different kinds of vegetable oils, researchers found they could turn liquid oils into solid fats.

That’s important because palm oil is so popular, in part, because it’s a rare type of oil that is semi-solid at room temperature, according to food science professor Alejandro Marangoni. That makes palm oil ideal for baking. 

But Marangoni says the researchers’ process — known as enzymatic glycerolysis (EG) — can successfully turn a variety of oils, including cottonseed, rice bran, olive and tiger nut oils, into solids.

“It seems like a lot of oils are playing along with us,” said Marangoni, who led the study and is also Canada Research Chair in food, health and aging.

Marangoni said he hopes the process can help curb the reliance on palm oil as an ingredient in industrial cooking and baking.

Why palm oil so common

Palm grew in popularity following the backlash against partially hydrogenated oils, when it became widely known that these oils contained trans fats, Marangoni said.

In recent years, Marangoni said it has become one of the most widely-consumed oils on the planet. In addition to being useful for industrial baking, it can also be produced cheaply and in massive quantities.

“Any time you buy a cookie, you buy a cake, you buy a croissant … most industrial bakery goods are all made with shortenings that are based on palm oil,” he said, adding that it is also popular in chocolates and other confectioneries.

“But … the sustainability signature of it is very bad.”

A Malaysian worker harvests palm fruits from a plantation in peninsular Malaysia, on March 6, 2019. The punishing effects of palm oil on the environment have been decried for years, says Guelph food science professor Alejandro Marangoni. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/The Associated Press)

The creation of large-scale African oil palm plantations has led to deforestation in Malaysia, Indonesia and in the Amazon basin, he said.

“Little by little, we’ve been going into these natural habitats and basically obliterating habitats for animals, as well as cutting down the trees, which have tremendous influence on greenhouse gas production and global warming,” said Marangoni, who noted there is also an environmental cost associated with shipping palm oils to North America.

Palm oil is also not risk-free when it comes to human health because it contains a high amount of saturated fat, he said.

Hope for small-scale production

Marangoni’s study on the use of EG in vegetable oils was recently published in the journal Nature Food.

The process still needs regulatory approval before it may be used in common grocery store products. Once it has been approved, he said it may take time to come into widespread use, as many food manufacturers have contracts with palm oil producers that will last years into the future.

He hopes that it may get to a place where local manufacturers may process different kinds of oils for use on a regional level.

“We don’t have to be married to a single oil, so I see this as an opportunity for, you know, small is beautiful, more local transformations,” he said.

“Maybe there will be small companies in the Guelph area that will put in a process that produces some of these shortenings.”

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