Palm fat, eliminating it is possible. Here’s how

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Replacing palm fat is possible. The need is compelling, as it is a cheap and easy-to-use tropical fat, but also a cause of land grabbing and deforestation, as well as rich in saturated fat and palmitic acid. And contrary to what some part of the food industry claims, eliminating it from recipes is within reach. Just decide.

Adopted in the latter half of the 1990s as an alternative to harmful hydrogenated fats, palm oil is present in a huge amount of foods consumed every day. Cookies, crackers, bread, snacks, spreads, frying oils, ice cream. A massive use motivated by the good technological performance of this fat, but especially by its cost: the lowest among commercially available fats. An ideal solution for industry. But now unsustainable.

The public has understood the extent of the threat, as evidenced by the wide participation in the petition promoted by Great Italian Food Trade together with Fatto Alimentare to limit the use of this fat as much as possible and work to exclude it from the food chain.

And the industry got the message. Packaged products that have eliminated palm fat are on the rise on the shelves. A clear demonstration that change is possible. We discuss this with Massimo Ambanelli of HiFoods, a company that makes sustainable ingredients for the food industry.

When it came to eliminating hydrogenated fats (trans fats) from recipes, palm fat was offered as an alternative for two reasons. It was easy to adopt, so within reach even for companies that did not have great recipe formulation skills. Most importantly, it was very cheap, ideal for those who wanted to save money. How do you get out of it?

“Today, eliminating it essentially requires the will to do so. To move away from the use of palm fat, large companies can move quickly because they have the knowledge. Small ones less so, because they often do not have the solutions in house.”

Between cunning and naiveté, the risk that change is just window dressing is concrete. “If in a croissant filled with cocoa cream, margarine (which contains 80 percent palm) is substituted but the filling is with a cream that contains palm, we’re back to square one,” notes Ambanelli, who adds, “The most serious thing is that ignorance leads to the substitution of palm for other even worse fats, such as coconut oil.”

Which fats to replace palm oil with is the topic of the moment.

Butter, olive oil, sunflower oil?

“In some cases, butter is a good solution, although it does not improve the nutritional profile of the product. In terms of saturated fat, palm and butter are comparable, plus butter is of animal origin, some people prefer to avoid it.”

Olive oil, a great product, an Italian icon, is not always ideal. “In addition to having a low proportion of saturated fat (about 14 percent) it is a ‘prima donna,’ it stands out for its very distinctive taste, which can translate into advantage or disadvantage. Inserted in bread, crackers, breadsticks it can be in the right place. But it is not the alternative to palm fat if it alters the organoleptic profile of the product to which the consumer is accustomed.”

Sunflower oil, characterized by more muted notes, seems the ideal candidate, judging by the frequency with which it is included in recipes instead of palm. “Compared to olive oil, it is easier to use. It is highly oleic, has compatible organoleptic tones and affordable cost. But by itself it does not replace palm. It requires technological solutions.”

Oil and fiber…

In short, sunflower oil seems to be the ideal player in replacing palm with vegetable oils, which are non-hydrogenated and free of saturated fats. But he is not the only one. “We go the route of combining vegetable oils with natural fibers, processed in such a way as to perfectly bind oil and water and substitute excellently for palm oil. An affordable solution even for smaller companies.”

The choice of oil type is affected by two criteria. “It must be saturated fat-free and sustainable, meaning obtained by natural (solvent-free) and local methods. That means sunflower in Italy, rapeseed oil in Northern Europe, and rice oil in Uruguay.”

Other techniques involve the use of enzymes that improve dough performance. A possible practice, but too “chemical” and technological for HiFoods’ style, which is extremely attentive to the nature of its ingredients. For fibers, for example, at the center of several “new” ingredient development processes, in addition to solvent-free extraction, sourcing from waste materials is also noteworthy. Potato peels, rice bran, tomato peels, seaweed. All of them are fibers with properties of great utility, performing at their best the same functions needed by the food industry, which are too often entrusted to the various additives, preservatives, emulsifiers, humectants, and stabilizers, identified by the abbreviation E…

How much does it cost to abandon palm fat?

Assessed by the sole criterion of profit, palm is unbeatable. It is the absolute cheapest grease, works wonders in doughs and has the highest efficiency in terms of yield. How much does it cost to abandon it? “Assuming a 30 percent impact of raw materials on the price of a product, adopting an ingredient that costs 20 percent more would result in a 6 percent cost increase. A price increase that would be immediately passed on in the selling price, making ‘palm free’ available only to the most affluent consumers. Unacceptable. Our goal is to keep the cost increase between 1 and 2 percent. Because the solution must be for everyone, not just the elites.”

Marta Strinati

Marta Strinati

Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".