Hexane is a petroleum-based solvent widely used industrially, especially in the food industry for the extraction of oils, vegetable proteins and natural ingredients. Yet as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has reclassified hexane as a proven human neurotoxicant, industry is on the hunt for an alternative.
This week, a plant-based hexane alternative, methyloxolane, was added to the list of permitted processing aids for the manufacture of food ingredients by the European Parliament and Council.
“We are delighted with this change,” said France-headquartered methyloxolane maker Minafin Group’s Laurence Jacques, managing director of the company’s methyloxolane brand EcoXtract.
Approval for Pennakem Europa’s methyloxolane
The authorisation comes in response to Pennakem Europa’s (an affiliate of the Minafin Group) submission of a dossier to the European Commission to have methyloxolane included in Directive 2009/32/EC, and follows a review by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which concluded in March 2022 that methyloxolane can be used safely for food production.
The new European regulation doesn’t specific the supplier of the methyloxolane, explained Jacques. “Any methyloxolane can be used as long as it respects the specifications of the regulation.”
It should be noted that Pennakem Europa holds two patents in Europe which protects the use of methyloxolane for oil extraction and protein defatting of any biological substrate. This means that the process cannot be used without a licence from Pennakem Europe.
But it’s unlikely a company would be able to do so, Jacques suggested. “The EFSA positive opinion regarding the methyloxolane didn’t disclose the production process and the full specification of the material.
“Only Pennakem Europa has these data and can offer the methyloxolane which has been received by EFSA.”
A ‘breakthrough’ in Directive 2009/32/CE
Methyloxolane is the first alternative to hexane made from 100% plant carbon. The processing aid is produced from agricultural co-products such as sugarcane bagasse, and has been used by the pharmaceutical industry for synthesis processes for more than 15 years.
Authorising the plant-based hexane alternative marks the first time since Directive 2009/32/CE was issued that a new liquid solvent is entering into the regulation. Minafin Group is describing the green light a ‘breakthrough’.
“Many thought that it would be impossible to have a new solvent ever approved because today, to enter the regulation, you have to provide many detailed toxicological studies and a very high level of proof for safety,” explained Jacques.
“None of the liquid solvents currently present in the regulation when through such a process. Moreover, the methyloxolane is the first solvent which is only plant-based and doesn’t exist as a petrochemical version.”
Another source of pride for EcoXtract-owner Minafin is that its solvent is the first solvent with a purity specification, we were told. “It seems obvious that solvents used for food extraction should have a controlled composition and threshold on any concerning impurities. But such specification doesn’t exist for any other solvent in the list.”
Methyloxolane for ‘more environmentally friendly’ ingredients
The inclusion of this new solution in European legislation will allow players in the oilseeds crush and plant extract industry to develop safer and more environmentally friendly ingredients for their customers, according to Minafin.
Methyloxolane now joins other approved hexane alternatives on the market, including superficial CO₂ and hot ethanal extraction. One of the main differences between methyloxolane and these alternatives, however, is that it allows the reuse of production facilities initially designed to extract with hexane, with minor modifications.
“Our goal is now to support the producers of food oils and natural ingredients to progressively abandon the use of hexane in favour of methyloxolane and thus reduce the exposure of the general population to this toxic product,” said Jacques.
“Together, we will help preserve our health and our planet.”