When it’s properly cultivated, palm oil is the most sustainable, best-functioning vegetable oil on the planet. It uses far less land per tonne of product than, for example, the soybean oil from which lecithin is won. Traditional palm oil production, however, has been shown to have far-reaching consequences for the environment and for local communities. From massive deforestation to abusive working conditions, many oil palm plantations have become a severe problem.
Wildlife, too, is impacted by unsustainable plantation practices, with orangutan numbers now vastly reduced in Borneo, Indonesia, one of the world’s primary sources of palm oil raw materials. Correspondingly, consumers – among them the more environmentally conscious Millennial generation – have become increasingly aware of palm oil as a potential liability in their shopping carts. And the resulting pressure in countries such as France, the UK, Norway, Sweden and Germany, in particular, has seen many margarine manufacturers looking for alternatives to palm. Today, viable alternatives have emerged in the marketplace, even for more challenging recipes.
Not so simple
No one said going non-palm was going to be easy. Converting margarine recipes, for example, from using palm-based oils and palm-based emulsifiers to non-palm equivalents isn’t an overnight switch.
Let’s start with the emulsifiers – a small part of the recipe but an extremely important one. If you remove palm oil as a raw material for emulsifiers, you need to take out the palmitic acids and replace them with stearic acids from rapeseed or soya beans, for example. As a result, the melting point will increase, and the hydrophilic and lipophilic balance should also be expected to change slightly.
Of course, to achieve a non-palm product that properly meets the shopping list of concerned consumers, you may need to replace other oils in the recipe, too. So, at the end of the day, you’re likely to be left with an end-product that will be noticeably different to the palm-based version.
These were some of the issues facing Palsgaard’s R&D scientists when, to support margarine manufacturer customers, our company decided to swing into action with a complete, end-to-end portfolio of non-palm alternatives to our highly functional, palm-based emulsifiers.
It wasn’t a decision made without a certain amount of internal resistance. That’s because, unlike many emulsifier manufacturers around the globe, Palsgaard’s entire range of emulsifiers is already available in compliance with the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)’s Segregated model and sustainably produced in a carbon-neutral plant.
Offering non-palm alternatives based on less sustainable raw crops, therefore, goes somewhat against the grain at our more than 100-year-old, socially responsible company. But customer needs are prioritised, and the Palsgaard R&D team were determined that, if non-palm products were going to gain market share, then they should be produced with the same strict attention to responsible supply chain practices and carbon-neutral production as the company’s other emulsifier products.
Non-palm margarine isn’t commonplace in today’s marketplace. At least, not yet. As a global emulsifier manufacturer, we can see two basic directions are taken by margarine manufacturers and the industrial bakers they serve: Either RSPO Segregated (SG) palm oil or non-palm.
For those who aren’t prepared to make the investment required by certified RSPO Segregated production, going the non-palm way might seem easy. In reality, and depending on the product, this may well be the more difficult of the two paths to take. Producers of pastry margarine for laminated doughs, for instance, will need palm-based ingredients to achieve the results that only high and controllable plasticity can deliver.
To take the non-palm road, it’s necessary to build up experience from scratch. And the learning curves are likely to be steep. Part of the journey requires the manufacturer to source new raw materials, establish new supplier relationships, and learn as much as possible about the materials and exactly how they function. And fully hydrogenated oils should be avoided wherever possible, as their high melting point results in a brittle end-product. Then there’s the price issue, of course, with more exotic oils such as chestnut or mango offered at a significant premium.