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Research Team May Have Found the Ultimate Substitute for Palm Oil


A Scottish research team believes they may have developed a groundbreaking alternative to palm oil, often referred to as the "holy grail" in the industry. Palm oil is a ubiquitous ingredient, found in nearly half of all food and cosmetic products available in supermarkets. The immense demand for palm oil has contributed to extensive deforestation in equatorial regions where oil palm trees thrive.

Researchers at Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh have introduced a 100% plant-based alternative known as PALM-ALT, which is not only a more environmentally friendly choice but also offers significant health benefits. PALM-ALT boasts 80% less saturated fat and 30% fewer calories compared to traditional palm shortening.

Catriona Liddle, a lead developer on the QMU team, expressed their achievement in replicating the taste and texture of traditional palm oil, stating, "It's the holy grail to replace it and still have exactly the same end result in product - to taste the same and have the texture the same - and we've done that. We've put it through some special sensory testing to see if a panel can tell the difference between our product and traditional palm shortening, and they can't."

PALM-ALT has a mayonnaise-like consistency and is free from palm and coconut ingredients, as well as any added flavorings, sugar, sweeteners, preservatives, or colorings. It is crafted from a by-product of the linseed industry, natural fiber, and rapeseed oil.

Palm oil remains the most widely produced vegetable oil globally, accounting for 40% of the total production, as reported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Its popularity in the food and cosmetics industry arises from its versatility—it is odorless, tasteless, and colorless, leaving the original characteristics of products unchanged. Moreover, palm oil adds a smooth texture and serves as a natural preservative, making it suitable for various applications, including cooking, chocolate, shampoo, pizza, toothpaste, and deodorant.

The cultivation of land for palm oil production, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, has expanded nearly ninefold from 3.3 million hectares (eight million acres) in 1970 to 28.7 million hectares in 2020. Financially, the global palm oil industry was valued at $62.3 billion (£51.2 billion) in 2021, and this figure is anticipated to rise to $75.7 billion by 2028 due to ongoing demand growth.

Catriona Liddle acknowledged the irreplaceable role of palm oil in the food industry, especially in baking products, but hinted at a potential shift with PALM-ALT. The QMU team has an international patent pending for their innovative product and plans to engage with prospective manufacturers. Liddle shared, "We've started off with bakery products - bread, cakes, biscuits - all the things that everybody loves to eat but are not terribly healthy for us. We've created a product that is over 80% less saturated fat and 30% less calories, so it's a significantly healthier product than palm oil itself. It's also about 70% better for the environment in terms of carbon emissions. Now we're looking at having discussions with people to manufacture the product, so it's really exciting for us."

Palm oil is favored for its cost-effectiveness and various functional qualities, which have made it challenging to find suitable alternatives. However, the environmental impact of palm oil production, including deforestation and habitat destruction, has raised concerns among environmentalists. They argue that palm oil farming has contributed to approximately 8% of global deforestation between 1990 and 2008, adversely affecting biodiversity and endangering species such as orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and tigers.