Overcoming the edible oil crisis
Replacing fats in food formulations has been a technical and scientific challenge for decades. Whether driven by commodity prices, sustainability, functionality, health or clean labelling, understanding the science underpinning the formulation and the impact of reformulation on both processing and consumer perception is key.
Currently, due to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the world is facing a major supply chain shortage of different products, including petroleum and gas. One of the biggest shortages is in sunflower oil as Ukraine and Russia are the two top suppliers to Europe. The conflict has brought some unique challenges for the food industry to the fore that require immediate solutions.
Whilst palm oil is disliked due to consumer concerns about deforestation and its impact on sustainability, it’s still a major product, worldwide. Palm oil production also faces disruption with the Indonesian government intending to ban the exports of palm oil in order to assure the supply of food supplies at home.
In the UK, consumers have been made aware that some food products labelled as “containing sunflower oil” may really contain refined rapeseed oil, according to the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland.
Sunflower oil, derived from the seeds of sunflowers, is widely used in cooking, emulsions and sauces, and in the manufacture of fat-based spreads. It is mainly composed of polyunsaturated linoleic acid and monounsaturated oleic acid, the proportion of which can be controlled through careful cultivation and post-harvest processing. Sunflower oil is favoured over other edible oils due to its neutral taste profile and its high content of vitamin E, which has a role as an important antioxidant and protector of cells from age-related damage, bloodstream, and body tissues.
Snack manufacturers opt for sunflower oil due to its ability support shelf life and to impart suitable properties to food products due to its low content of saturated fat, high smoke point and neutral flavour, at a comparatively lower cost compared to other edible oils, such as olive oil and rapeseed.
An immediate challenge is therefore to develop safe alternatives to sunflower oil that can be used as like-for-like replacements in food products. Understanding the deep science associated with its functional and nutritional properties, will be key to enabling food manufacturers to quickly respond and future proof their organisations against further market disruptions.
There are a myriad of options that could be considered, and Sagentia Innovation is helping companies select the most appropriate option for their specific application. We know that each formulation is unique; however we believe there are three main characteristics that need to be assessed when choosing a replacement; flavour, saturation and smoke point. The smoke point is particularly important because it is an indicator of the breakdown and deterioration of the lipid.
Rapeseed oil – Canola - is of particular interest since it is unsaturated and high in monounsaturated fat. It's also high in Vitamin E and omega 3, 6, and 9 fats, which are beneficial to brain, heart, and joint health, and it’s been recommended by the British Heart Foundation for cooking use.
Sagentia Innovation’s view of potential alternatives to sunflower oil
For those formulations in which an additional flavour can be included in or easily disguised, companies can also explore other alternatives, such as avocado oil.
For those products where allergens are built-in within the formulation, then soy, sesame and almond oil can be considered.
The last consideration is non-lipid solutions. Exploration of oil replacements from an ingredient point of view could lead to hydrocolloids, gels and even protein/fibre systems, and from a technology standpoint, frying could be replaced with baking or other novel technologies such as n-Bread.
Best alternative solutions, based on smoke point, saturation, flavour and lack of allergenicity, for key applications
Once the right oil alternative has been identified, a number of additional key considerations need to be taken into account, as follows:
Label check and regulations i.e.
- How can this ingredient be used?
- Where can the ingredient be used?
- Is there a claim to be added?
- Will the product’ physicochemical parameters be modified?
- How might this impact dosage level and processing?
- How much more/less sustainable is this new formulation, ingredient, process and how does it impact on waste streams?
- What are the unit economics?
- Is there a sustained supply and how susceptible is it to future disruptions?
- How will the nutritional profile change?
- How will the replacement impact mouthfeel and consumer perception?
How Sagentia Innovation can help
As mentioned in our R&D Acceleration white paper, it's usually tempting to rush right into the lab and start prototyping when beginning an NPD initiative. There may be some benefit in doing so, such as familiarising the R&D team with some of the issues connected with specific components and processing methods before establishing a more concentrated experimental strategy. However, this tactic typically falls short of making tangible progress outside of fortuitous findings. Rather than developing breakthrough solutions, teams are more likely to swiftly prototype processes, ingredients, and recipes that are similar to what is already known.
We can help you with our thorough structured approach to R&D: we begin by understanding your product innovation objectives, we tailor a streamlined experimental program based on our understanding of the key challenges and then we leverage our deep science and technology expertise, in order to identify the right solution to deliver a successful outcome.
“This enabled our client to grow their supply network and reduce their costs with solutions ranging between 20% and 30% cheaper.”
Success case study
Our client, a global confectionery manufacturing company, was interested in growing its ingredient supply chain network, focusing on alternative texture enhancing ingredients, which would improve its strategic position in the market.
Using a phased approach, Sagentia Innovation developed an understanding of the functionality of the ingredient within the specific matrix. We conducted a thorough review of the academic literature, identified and interviewed suppliers and sourced samples. We then applied a set of criteria to select ingredients to take forward for further evaluation and experimentally validate the functionality of the ingredients against the product specification.
By developing an understanding of the science underpinning the ingredient functionality and combining our advisory skillsets and lab testing development capabilities, we were able to recommend a set of high performing alternative ingredients with a very high functionality and matching specification to meet the product criteria. This enabled our client to grow their supply network and reduce their costs with solutions ranging between 20% and 30% cheaper.
For over thirty years, Sagentia Innovation has been bringing breakthrough technologies, ingredients, materials, processes, and products to market for our clients, across multiple industries.
We accelerate innovation for clients by leveraging our knowledge to develop new solutions grounded on scientific principles. Our teams can help you expedite your own R&D processes by evaluating your R&D platforms and key performance metrics against industry leaders, developing a predictive modelling tool that links ingredients to sensory outputs, or designing a digital manufacturing tool.
- Barbara Claro (PhD in Biophysics) - Analyst, focusing on the characterization of lipids systems in different applications.
- Maria Spinetta (Food Engineer) - Sector Manager Food & Beverage, supporting global food and beverage companies with their innovation challenges, offering advisory and product development support.
- Eileen Buttimer (PhD in Biochemistry, MBA) – SVP of New Business Development
 Vegetable Oils: Dietary Importance", S.C.Savva, A.Kafatos , Encyclopedia of Food and Health 2016, Pages 365-372 (https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-384947-2.00709-1)