Palm oil is a controversial ingredient. Its reputation has been muddied in recent years due to links with deforestation in biodiverse regions and the conversion of carbon-rich peat soils.
Yet the global palm oil market remains strong. In 2021, its value was estimated at $50.6bn and is expected to reach $65.5bn by 2027.
Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable oil in the world. And being neutral in colour and flavour, the ingredient is a favourite amongst food manufacturers.
What if a substitute oil existed that could replace the contentious ingredient in food formulation, but without any impact on deforestation, biodiversity loss, or climate change?
British start-up Clean Food Group is working to develop just that.
A bio-equivalent to palm oil
Christopher Chuck, Professor of Bioprocess Engineering at the University of Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering, has been working on a yeast-based alternative to palm oil for the last eight years.
In Q1 2022, the relevant intellectual property was acquired by Clean Food Group, of which Prof Chuck is Group Technical Advisor.
“Our dependence on palm oil comes at a great environmental cost,” said Prof Chuck.
“We’ve worked over many years to create robust palm oil alternatives that give us a real chance to cut the impact of a range of products that until now have only been possible to produce with palm oil and the deforestation, pollution and emissions that come with it.”
The start-up’s Clean Palm Oil is a bio-equivalent to the real thing in terms of nutritional and fatty acid makeup.
“It is neutral in taste and colour – as with palm oil from palm, its natural colour is orange/red but can be made colourless by a simple refining process,” explained Clean Food Group CEO Alex Neves. “It performs the same way as palm oil.”
How is Clean Palm Oil produced?
Clean Food Group’s palm oil substitute is made from yeast grown in a lab.
The start-up has developed a proprietary yeast strain, which Neves explained has evolved, using a ‘natural process’, from a strain of yeast commonly found on the surface of grapes used in organic winemaking.
“Our yeast strain has been developed over eight years by Prof Chuck using a natural process called ‘Directed Evolution’, which is a non-genetically modified process similar in many ways to plant-breeding,” he told FoodNavigator.
Using food-safe waste as a feedstock and renewable energy as an energy source, Clean Food Group is leveraging fermentation technology to grow the yeast in tanks similar to those used in the brewing industry.
“In fact, rather than producing our oil in a lab, we will manufacture our oil in a food factory very similar to a brewery, using very similar equipment,” Neves explained.
“We then extract the oil from the yeast just as palm oil is extracted from palm for use in products or for further processing into palm oil derivative ingredients.”
Once on the market, the start-up said its palm oil alternative will be able to be used in all product applications where palm oil is currently used.
Challenges to commercialisation
Key challenges facing Clean Food Group include achieving scale, price parity, and regulatory approval.
Price parity with palm oil – or being within an acceptable margin of price parity – is possible, suggested the CEO, and is ‘directly linked to scale’.
From a regulatory perspective, the start-up is initially focusing on the European market where its ingredient is considered a Novel Food.
“Our oil is considered a Novel Food because even though it is bio-equivalent to palm oil, our yeast-based oil has not been sold within the UK or European area before 1997.
“We are currently working on preparing our Novel Foods dossier which we are planning to submit by the end of 2022.”
That said, the start-up is able to sell its palm oil alternative ingredients to the cosmetics and personal care industries without passing through Novel Foods regulatory pathways, as these industries are governed separately.
Funding and next steps
With submission for regulatory approval planned for the end of the year, the start-up expects to have its palm oil ingredients on the market in 2023.
“We are currently in consultation with our regulatory consultant regarding how our ingredients will appear on-pack as part of our preparation for Novel Foods,” Neves revealed. “It is likely that as bulk oil, it will appear as ‘yeast oil’.”
Cellular agriculture-focused Agronomics has led Clean Food Group’s financing rounds to-date, including its recently-completed seed round of £1.65m (€1.97). Agronomics holds a 35% interest in the company.
Other early investors include SEED Innovations Limited and venture capital investors.
Clean Food Group feels ‘well placed’ to take the next step on the path to brining its palm oil alternative to market, said the CEO.
“In addition to our acquisition of the intellectual property for the palm oil alternative technology and our collaboration with the University of Bath to scale the technology, we will be investing in securing regulatory approval for our palm oil alternative ingredients in multiple markets.
“We will also be investing in the development of a large-scale pilot plant which will allow us to enter into meaning collaborations with commercial partners and to demonstrate our palm oil alternatives with finished products.”