Along with being sub-optimal for human health, many conventional cooking oils contribute to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and soil and water pollution. Fermented oils could save both the environment and our diets.
Cooking oils are essential in the kitchen. Used to cook almost every meal, they add flavor to our food and crucially prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. However, these kitchen essentials can harm the environment in a multitude of ways.
Vegetable- and seed-based oil crops are responsible for huge amounts of deforestation, destroying habitats and biodiversity — palm oil, specifically, is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation; the trifecta of beef, soybean and palm oil production drives 60 percent of tropical deforestation. This is because huge amounts of land are needed to grow them; more land is devoted to growing these crops than all fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, roots and tubers combined. Vegetable- and seed-oil plantations are also sprayed with copious amounts of pesticides that contaminate surrounding soil and water, contributing to eutrophication and killing aquatic life.
Since oils are fundamental to cooking, suddenly removing them from our kitchens would be a tall order. But a handful of innovators that have developed fermented alternatives to conventionally cultivated oils — that are healthier, environmentally sustainable and just as delicious — could enable a massive shift for the industry.
Zero Acre Farms
Image credit: Zero Acre Farms
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California-based startup Zero Acre Farms’ Cultured Oil is designed to replace environmentally destructive and resource-intensive vegetable and seed oils. It uses 85 percent less land than canola oil, emits 86 percent less CO2 than soybean oil, requires 99 percent less water than olive oil; and is more heat-stable than both olive and avocado oil. On the dietary-health front, the company says Cultured Oil is made up of over 90 percent heart-healthy and heat-stable monounsaturated fat than olive oil and avocado oil; and it contains up to 10x less omega-6 PUFA (linoleic acid) — excessive intake of which is associated with inflammation, obesity, heart disease and more — than those two popular cooking oils, which provide almost five times more than we need.
“Our mission is to give the world an oil change by offering products that are healthier, more sustainable, and superior to vegetable oils in terms of culinary performance. Cultured Oil, which is made by fermenting sugarcane, directly meets all of these criteria,” Zero Acre co-founder and CEO Jeff Nobbs told Sustainable Brands®. “It boasts high levels of healthy fats; a small environmental footprint; a clean, neutral taste and a high smoke point.”
But if it’s not made from a vegetable or seed, what is it made of? According to the company’s site:
It all starts with an oil culture (a community of microorganisms cultivated specifically for making healthy fats).
Next, the culture is fed sugar from non-GMO, perennial sugarcane.
Over the course of a few days, microorganisms in the culture convert (ferment) this sugar into oils or fats. Some oil cultures produce more liquid oils, while others produce more solid fats.
To harvest, the culture is pressed and the oil is released.
Finally, the pressed oil is separated and filtered, resulting in Cultured Oil.
As Nobbs told TechCrunch in 2022, “It’s like making beer; but instead of producing ethanol, the microbes produce oil and fat — and a lot of it.”
Less than a year into production, Zero Acre Farms received a cash infusion from Chipotle's $50 million venture fund, Cultivate Next, and support other investors — which it plans to channel into R&D, driving further cost reductions, and launching new products to increase scale and continue lowering costs. Since shipping its first bottles of oil to consumers and home cooks in late August, its focus is on scaling its impact — and making Cultured Oil more affordable will be key in having it become an accessible solution for restaurants.
“Innovative solutions often start with high costs, and Cultured Oil is no exception. Our strategy is to initially position our product at the high end of the consumer market, where a better product and cooking experience justifies a premium price,” Nobbs explains. “Already, we anticipate a significant cost reduction for food-service and food-manufacturing customers wanting to use our Cultured Oil, with prices expected to be 80 percent less than the current retail rate. This affordability will extend to restaurants and other customers as we scale up.”
ÄIO's Buttery Fat | Image credit: ÄIO
Meanwhile, Estonia-based biotech company ÄIO is on a similar mission to replace palm oil, coconut oil and animal fats with sustainable and healthier alternatives for the food, cosmetics and household-cleaning industries.
Like Zero Acre, ÄIO's fermentation method requires minimal land and far fewer resources than conventional oil-production and animal-farming methods, resulting in a much lower environmental footprint. But its feedstocks and circular approach are what set it apart: ÄIO upcycles low-value by-products — such as sawdust — from the food, agricultural and wood industries, reducing waste and giving more value to previously discarded side streams. The upcycled byproducts are transformed into its ÄIO's Encapsulated Oil (a substitute for palm oil, vegetable oil or animal fats), RedOil (a substitute for fish or seed oils) and Buttery Fat (sub for animal fat or coconut fat) through natural fermentation, biomass harvesting and drying, and lipid extraction.
“Our solution helps to reduce waste and turn low-value inputs into high-value products. Our specialty oil ingredients are versatile in form and naturally rich in vitamins and antioxidants. ÄIO's fats and oils will be revolutionary!” Killu Leet, Project Manager at ÄIO, told SB.
ÄIO is set to produce its first food-grade batches in the coming months, with several projects waiting to be supplied with its oils. The company is building its first demo plant in Estonia to supply sustainable ingredients to industry partners across Europe, with a goal to bring its oils to the retail market by 2026. The company raised $1.2 million in funding earlier this year from investors including Nordic Foodtech VC, EAS and other partners who support its mission to replace environmentally depleting oils by upcycling existing industrial byproducts.
“There is great interest from the market towards valorization technologies and biotechnologically produced ingredients,” Leet says. “We are confident and ready to educate the industry about the solutions today's technology is capable of delivering, and know that not only the environmentally conscious consumers are already ready to explore them today. We have supplied our ingredients for testing and product development in both food and feed sectors, exploring also other verticals in addition to the agri-food industry. We see that our ingredients perform well in tested food formulas and have encountered some new ideas to test together with onboarded partners inside Europe.”