Since ancient times, fats and oils have played a primary role as products used in domestic, cosmetic, to medical applications, and later employed in the industrial production of food, drugs, cosmetics, and biofuels. Originally, the main source from which oils and fats came was either vegetable, such as linseed, olive, or avocado oil, or animal, such as butter.
The transition: from saturated to unsaturated fats
The fats and oils industry has been transitioning in recent years: on one hand, consumers are increasingly questioning the impact of saturated fats on health; on the other hand, industries are focusing more on the use of unsaturated fats because of their key role within a healthy, balanced diet, helping to prevent cardiovascular disease. This change is not only related to a health issue, but also to an environmental one: as the population increases and climate change advances, sources of animal and vegetable oils and fats may not be sufficient to meet worldwide demand. This is driving the need to look for alternatives to conventional fats and oils, considering new sources and technologies.
According to the article “A Brief Journey into the History of and Future Sources and Uses of Fatty Acids” published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, the largest producer of fats and oils today is Asia, which accounted for more than half of the world’s production of soybean, canola and palm oil in 2018. Asia is also the largest consumer of these ingredients, followed by the United States.
The need for alternatives for meat alternatives success
Innovation in oils and fats is crucial to the success of plant-based alternative products to meat. According to the article “Research on animal-free fats presentes un-fa-homable possibilities for meat alternatives” drawn up by the Good Food Institute, coconut oil is currently the leading vegetable fat used in meat alternative products because it has a better semi-solid structure than other vegetable fats. Coconut oil, in fact, has an extremely low melting point and contains low amounts of omega-3 fats, polyunsaturated fatty acids usually found in marine animal sources, The article also estimates that by 2030 the meat alternatives industry will require about 13 percent of global coconut oil production, posing a problem due to the demand for this product from other sectors and supply volatility.
We can say, then, that the search for new alternatives to oils and fats is the key to establishing the meat alternatives sector; the use of new ingredients, better both technologically and nutritionally, would allow the development of products increasingly similar to conventional meat in terms of taste and texture, and with a better impact on health, targeting the ever-expanding target of flexitarians.
So what innovations do we see in the oils and fats area?
Plant-based, Cultured fats and Fermented based fats
Research toward new alternatives to oils and fats should aim to emulate the desirable features of animal fat as benchmarks while improving on the negative characteristics. The ideal product should emulate the taste, texture, structure and nutritional benefits of animal fats, while also maintaining its cooking properties, stability and, last but not least, convenience.
Currently, several companies and start-ups are pursuing alternative ingredients to fats, focusing on the research of new matrices, such as algae, and the use of new technologies, such as cell cultures and fermentation. Relative to plant-based alternatives, we can highlight oil from algae, as having a high concentration of unsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, and thus an ideal plant-based alternative to oil derived from marine animal sources. However, the high cost of production through algoculture is still a limitation to overcome for its commercialization. The oil extracted from avocado is also attractive, due to a concentration of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants, as well as also its high melting point, which makes it suitable for high-temperature cooking.
Alternatives produced through new technologies, such as cell cultures, may also represent exciting breakthroughs in innovation. Through cell cultures, fats are produced by culturing one or more animal cells, which, through growth in a controlled environment, can reach a substantial critical mass. Through different parameters for their growth, these cells are adapted to develop as the fat that is to be replicated. While promising, this technology still has several areas for improvement, such as scalability and production costs, and regulatory approvals on the consumption of these novel foods.
Finally, alternatives produced through microbial fermentation are also attracting increasing attention. According to the “Fermentation: State of the Industry Report” compiled by the Good Food Institute, 2021 was a fruitful year for the industry. Indeed, through a microbial fermentation process, lipid molecules that are chemically identical to those of animals can be produced. Oils and fats made by microorganisms can be obtained from a variety of sources, including yeasts, fungi, and algae. As in the area of cell cultures, more research investment is needed for microbial fermentation technologies to be able to adopt these technologies on a large scale, lowering initial burdensome production costs.
The combination of these different technologies, and the search for new matrices, supported by investment on research, will be crucial for the development of new ingredients, which will go on to create the food of the future, unlocking the potential for new tastes and textures, while maintaining a positive impact on the planet.