Palm oil can be replaced. The need is urgent, it is an economical tropical fat and easy to use, but also the cause of land grabbing and deforestation, and rich in saturated fat and palmitic acid. And contrary to what a certain part of the food industry declares to eliminate it from recipes is a task at hand. One must just decide to.
Adopted in the second half of the 90s as an alternative to harmful hydrogenated fats, palm oil is present in huge amounts of food consumed each day. Cookies, crackers, breads, snacks, spreads, fried oils, ice cream. A massive use motivated by the excellent technological performance of this fat, but mostly because of its cost: the lowest cost of all fats on the market. An ideal solution for the industry. But now unsustainable.
The public has understood the extent of the threat, as evidenced by the large participation in the petition brought by Great Italian Food Trade along with il Fatto Alimentare to limit, as much as possible, the use of this fat and to work on its exclusion from the food chain.
And the industry has gotten the message. On the shelves, packaged products that have eliminated palm oil are increasing. A clear demonstration that change is possible. We spoke with Massimo Ambanelli of HiFoods, a company that creates sustainable ingredients for the food industry.
When it came to eliminating hydrogenated fats (trans fats) from recipes, palm oil was offered as an alternative for two reasons. It was easy to adopt, then at hand also for the companies that did not have large capacity of formulation of recipes. But above all it was very cheap, ideal for those who wanted to save money. But what can we do? “Today, essentially to eliminate it we only need the will to do so. To move away from the use of palm oil, large companies can move quickly, because they have the necessary knowledge. The smaller ones less, because they often do not have in – house solutions. “
Between cunning and ingenuity, the risk that the change is just a facade is concrete. “If in a stuffed croissant with cocoa cream margarine is substituted (which contains palm oil for its 80%) but it is filled with a cream containing palm oil we are again on square one,” states Ambanelli, adding: “The worst thing is that ignorance leads to replacing palm oil with other even worse fats, like coconut oil “.
What fats can substitute palm oil is the issue of the moment. Butter, olive oil, sunflower oil? “In some cases butter is a good solution, although it does not have the best nutritional profile. In terms of saturated fat, palm oil and butter are comparable, butter comes from animals and therefore there are those who prefer to avoid it.”
Olive oil, excellent product, an Italian icon, but it is not always ideal. “In addition to having a reduced proportion of saturated fat (14%) it is a ‘prima donna’, it stands out for its very distinctive taste, which may result in an advantage or disadvantage. Added to bread, crackers, breadsticks it can be the right choice. But it cannot be the alternative to palm oil if it alters the flavor of the product to which the consumer is accustomed to. “
Sunflower oil, characterized by softer notes, it seems the ideal candidate, judging by the frequency with which it is inserted into recipes instead of palm oil. “In comparison to olive oil it is easier to use. It is highly oleic, it has compatible organoleptic tones and an affordable cost. But it cannot replace palm oil by itself. It requires technological solutions.”
Oil and fibers
Sunflower oil seems in short, the ideal protagonist in replacing palm oil with vegetable, non-hydrogenated and free of saturated fat oils. But not the only one. “We are embarking into the adventure of combining vegetable oils with natural fibers, processed to perfectly and easily bind oil and water to substitute palm oil. A solution accessible also to smaller companies.”
The choice of the type of oil is conditioned by two criteria. “It must be free of saturated fats and sustainable, that is obtained with natural (solvent) and local methods. This means that to Italy it is the sunflower, to Northern Europe, rapeseed oil, rice oil to Uruguay” .
Other techniques involve the use of enzymes that improve the performance of the dough. A possible practice, but too much “chemistry” and technology for the style of HiFoods, extremely attentive to the nature of its ingredients. For fibers, for example, a key to various development processes of “new” ingredients, in addition to the extraction solvent, the origin from waste materials is also worthy of note. Potato peels, rice bran, tomato skins, algae. All fibers with highly useful properties, which play most of the same functions necessary for the food, too often entrusted to the various additives, preservatives, emulsifiers, humectants, stabilizers, identified by the abbreviation E …
How much does it cost to abandon palm oil?
Basing the answer on the sole criterion of profit, palm oil is unbeatable. It is the cheapest of all fats, it works wonders in the dough and it has the maximum efficiency in terms of yield. How much does it cost to abandon it?
“Assuming an incidence by 30% of raw materials on the price of a product, let’s take an ingredient that costs 20% more, this would result in a cost increase of 6%. These higher prices that would be immediately returned to the selling price, would make ‘palm free ‘ products only accessible to better-off consumers. Unacceptable. Our goal is to keep the increase in costs between 1 and 2%. Because the solution should be for everyone, not just for the elite. “