For some time, food companies have been searching for ways to reduce the amount of saturated fats in their products by replacing them with unsaturated fats — this is no easy task because the two kinds of fat have different properties. Saturated fats such as palm oil and coconut oil are solid at room temperature, which is important for the texture, hardness and spreadability of the products. Whereas, unsaturated fats such as olive oil and sunflower oil are liquid and therefore do not have those structuring properties.
Now, KU Leuven researchers in Belgium have developed an unsaturated fat that remains solid at room temperature — the product called Sterolife will be tested to determine if it could be used as an ingredient in food products such as cholesterol-lowering margarines.
Made from plant sterols, Sterolife is an odourless and colourless fat that remains solid at room temperature.
“The use of plant sterols offers benefits in terms of the environment and sustainability. These substances can be found in the bypass flows of existing production processes,” said Professor Imogen Foubert, promoter of the research project.
“This stands in stark contrast to the production of palm oil, the most consumed fat in the world.”
Dr Eva Daels, of the Food & Lipids research group at KU Leuven, has obtained an innovation mandate from VLAIO (Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) to further develop the product and bring it to the market in the future. It will now be tested to determine if and how the product can be used as an ingredient in food products. In the first instance, researchers will look at existing cholesterol-lowering products.
“Foods which are promoted as cholesterol-lowering still contain a significant amount of saturated fat. So there are still gains to be made in that area and we hope to contribute to that with Sterolife,” Dr Daels said.
The initial testing will involve products such as margarines and spreads, and baking products such as biscuits, muffins and cereal bars.
“We will test how our fat behaves in these specific products and, based on this knowledge, we will fine-tune the production process. There are still different obstacles to overcome but we believe that Sterolife will become a game changer in the food industry and in the search for healthy alternatives to existing high-fat products,” Dr Daels said.