Scientists hail cholesterol-lowering vegetable fat discovery

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/PM Images
Image: Getty/PM Images

Related tags Saturated fat Unsaturated fat Heart

Researchers at the KU Leuven university in Belgium have obtained an innovation grant from the Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) to test and develop a new unsaturated fat which they claim remains solid at room temperature.

The product, called Sterolife, can help food companies to develop healthy alternatives to existing high-fat products, the academics said.

For decades food companies have been searching for ways to reduce the amount of saturated fats -- which can raise blood cholesterol if too much is consumed -- in their products and to replace them with more heart-healthy unsaturated fats. That’s no easy task as the two kinds of fat have different properties. Saturated fats -- such as butter, lard, ghee, fatty meats and cheese – stay solid at room temperature. This is important for the texture, hardness and spreadability of the products. Unsaturated fats such as olive oil and sunflower oil are liquid and therefore do not have those structuring properties.

Researchers at KU Leuven Campus Kulak Kortrijk have succeeded in developing an unsaturated fat which remains solid at room temperature. "Our product is an odourless and colourless solid fat," ​said Dr Eva Daels of the Food & Lipids research group. "With these properties, Sterolife can reduce the saturated fat content in products without sacrificing the quality and texture."

Sterolife is made from plant sterols – substances that are naturally present in different plant products such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and grains, albeit in small amounts. 

“The use of plant sterols offers benefits in terms of the environment and sustainability. These substances can be found in the bypass flows of existing production processes,"​ said Professor Imogen Foubert, promoter of the research project. “This stands in stark contrast to the production of palm oil, the most consumed fat in the world. Production takes place exclusively in tropical areas and involves deforestation of the rainforest, loss of biodiversity and huge CO2 emissions." 

Because the fat contains contains plant sterols that are not absorbed in the body, it has less energy/calories than conventional fats and oils. It also contains less saturated fat than olive oil, the researchers claimed. 

Dr Daels has obtained an innovation mandate from VLAIO (Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) to further develop the product and bring it to the market in the future. It shall therefore be tested to determine if and how Sterolife can be used as an ingredient in food products. 

“Foods which are promoted as cholesterol-lowering still contain a significant amount of saturated fat. So there are still gains to be made in that area and we hope to contribute to that with Sterolife,"​ Dr Daels said. “Initially, this will involve margarines, spreads and baking products such as biscuits, muffins and cereal bars. We will test how our fat behaves in these specific products and, based on this knowledge, we will fine-tune the production process. There are still different obstacles to overcome but we believe that Sterolife will become a game changer in the food industry and in the search for healthy alternatives to existing high-fat products."

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