Olive oil and other unsaturated fats are liquid, but KU Leuven researchers have now developed an unsaturated fat that still remains solid at room temperature. Their product Sterolife can help food companies to develop healthy alternatives to existing high-fat products. The researchers have obtained an innovation mandate from VLAIO (Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) to test and develop the new fat.
In a healthy diet, saturated fats are only present in limited amounts. Saturated fats have a negative effect on the level of cholesterol in the blood. This is why food companies have already for decades been searching for ways to reduce the amount of saturated fats in their products and to replace them with unsaturated fats.
This replacement 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. This is important for the texture, hardness and spreadability of the products. Unsaturated fats such as olive oil and sunflower oil are liquid and therefore do not have those structuring properties.
Researchers at KU Leuven Campus Kulak Kortrijk have succeeded in developing an unsaturated fat which remains solid at room temperature. “Our product, that we have named Sterolife, is an odourless and colourless solid fat,” says Dr Eva Daels of the Food & Lipids research group. “With these properties, Sterolife can reduce the saturated fat content in products without sacrificing the quality and texture.”
Sterolife is made from plant sterols. These substances are naturally present in different plant products such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and grains, albeit in small amounts.
“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,” says 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. Production takes place exclusively in tropical areas and involves deforestation of the rainforest, loss of biodiversity and huge CO2 emissions.”
Eva Daels 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 shall therefore be tested to determine if and how Sterolife can be used as an ingredient in food products. In the first instance, researchers look at the 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 says. “Initially, this will involve margarines, 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.”