‘Combining traditional manufacturing with innovative technologies’: Fraunhofer taking out palm oil and replacing fat with plant proteins

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

New technological processes unlock opportunities to replace palm oil and cut fat ©Fraunhofer
New technological processes unlock opportunities to replace palm oil and cut fat ©Fraunhofer

Related tags reformulation plant protein Palm oil Fat Fat reduction Saturated fat

The Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV has launched two research projects focused on lowering the level of saturated fatty acids in foods by 30% without using chemical additives and replacing palm oil with healthier alternatives.

The research initiative comes in response to growing concern over the levels of saturated fats in processed foods. European policy makers and consumers want to promote and adopt healthier diets containing lower levels of saturated fats. However, the ‘low-fat’ or ‘light’ options currently available are viewed with some scepticism because fat reduction is often achieved through the use of chemical additives and texturising agents.

In a bid to tackle this challenge, Fraunhofer IVV launched two research projects at the start of 2019 that aim to optimise methods to reformulate packaged foods. The Institute’s initiatives aim to investigate “new technological approaches​” for improving the nutri-physiological properties of processed foods.

The research projects are being carried out with support from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is a member of the food Knowledge and Innovation Community, which includes 50 leading companies, universities and scientific partners. The aim is to promote new, healthy and sustainable food products.

The German research institution said it intends to develop “tasty products”​ with less sugar salt and fat or enriched with dietary fibre and plant proteins.

Altering the formulation of food products in order to improve their nutritional profile will invariably have an impact on taste, shelf-life and texture, project leader Christian Zacherl explained. According to the food scientist, texture has been identified as “particularly decisive for how a product is perceived by consumers”​. For this reason, texture is a key focus for both projects.

A particular focus for our development work is hence the texturising of foods,”​ explained Zacherl.

“Recipe change and new product developments are being achieved by combining traditional manufacturing methods with innovative technologies and customised functional ingredients.”

Reducing fat with plant proteins

beans pulses fibre
Protein from pulses can be used to replace fat, researchers find ©iStock

Zacherl continued: “Plant proteins play a decisive role here.”

According to the researchers, the use of plant protein to reduce fat in products like cream fillings and sauces should cut the level of sat fats by around 30%.

Micellar proteins from lupines and other pulses can be used for this purpose because the spherical micellar proteins have structural properties similar to fats, they revealed. This means the protein content can be increased while also delivering an overall reduction in energy density.

This reformulation process will be achieved using what Fraunhofer described as a “new ultra-high pressure technology”​ currently being tested by its Spanish partner, AZTI. The technique can be used during the manufacturing process or on the final product to improve texture and lengthen shelf-life.

Slowing spoilage is important because fat reduction is often associated with more limited product shelf-life. As well as impacting texture, the high-pressure treatment simultaneously promotes microbiological stability, researchers discovered. This negates the need for added preservatives in low-fat products.

Fraunhofer is now working on improving the functionality of plant protein ingredients adapted to the process.

palm oil bottles label Crédits scanrail
Palm oil contains saturated fats and is associated with negative environmental impact ©iStock/Crédits scanrail

Working to 'completely replace' palm oil

Fraunhofer and its partner institutions are also working to help reduce the food industry’s reliance on palm oil.

Currently, products like spreads are frequently made using palm oil, meaning that they are high in saturated fatty acids – the consumption of which can have negative health implications.

“From a nutri-physiological point of view these are unhealthy fatty acids. They can increase blood fats and LDL cholesterol and adversely affect the cardiovascular system. This increases the risk of coronary heart disease," ​researchers noted. 

To tackle this issue, Fraunhofer also launched a project that aims to develop ingredients based on high-quality, polyunsaturated oils that have the potential to “completely replace”​ palm oil.

Alternatives include sunflower oil and rapeseed oil. However, work is needed to improve the functionality of these ingredients. “Before they can be used properties such as their melting behaviour and viscosity, which has a large effect on mouth feel, must be modified.”

To achieve this, the development team at Fraunhofer is working on the targeted crystalisation of oils. The aim is to alter the texture of the oils so that they can be used in products such as spreads.

The research does not aim to reduce the total fat content of the oils. Rather, it wants to open the door to increased use of healthier oils by the food sector.

Fraunhofer also noted that removing palm oil from the ingredients list could potentially improve the sustainability credentials of food brands describing palm oil plantations as “controversial form an environmental point of view​”.

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1 comment

Palm oil replacement

Posted by Jessie,

It was my understanding that consumers avoid palm oil because it's not a sustainable resource and it's production contributes to rain forest depletion. Any negative health effects would be a secondary concern. In fact, with ketogenic diets in vogue, fat-reduction may not be on trend for a broad consumer base at this moment.

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