If we open our fridge, bathroom cabinet or laundry room, and take a close look at the products we keep in there, we have a very high chance of finding palm oil in at least half of them. In most ingredient lists, palm oil often hides behind the “vegetable oil” pseudonym, which makes it hard to identify.
Palm oil has taken over most of our every day products. It’s in our shampoos and soaps, cleaning agents, in our chocolate, margarine, spreads, soft drinks, baked goods, ice creams, chips and potato fries, and even in our powder milk.
OK, so what is so bad about Palm oil?
The problem is that it comes with a side of deforestation.
In a previous article linking palm oil and deforestation, I explained how huge palm oil mono-cultures are rapidly substituting Indonesia’s old growth forests, pushing some of the last Orangutans, and countless of other species to the brink of extinction. Deforestation is also placing Indonesia as one of the top CO2 emitters in the world -not from burning fossil fuels, but from the massive CO2 levels released from deforestation-.
The last orangutan populations in the world are found in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two largest producers of palm oil in the world. Over 80% of the palm oil produced in the world comes from Indonesia, and the vast majority has been produced at the expense of some of some of the last old growth tropical rain forest in the world.
Despite this gloomy future, our thirst for vegetable oil is just going to increase.
But maybe we can feed it with a different and more sustainable type of oil. And here is where Solazyme, a San Francisco based biotech company comes into play. Solazyme produces high quality algae oil that is not only much more sustainable but also healthier than palm oil.
As stated in Solazyme’s website:
“Solazyme has pioneered an industrial biotechnology platform that harnesses the prolific oil-producing ability of microalgae. We use standard industrial fermentation equipment to efficiently scale and accelerate the microalgae’s natural oil production time to just a few days. Our platform is feedstock flexible and can utilize a wide variety of plant-based sugars, such as sugarcane-based sucrose, corn-based dextrose, and sugar from other biomass sources including cellulosics. By growing our proprietary microalgae in the absence of light using fermentation tanks to convert photosynthetic plant sugars into oil, we are in effect utilizing “indirect photosynthesis.”
In March of 2010, Solazyme entered into a research and development agreement with Unilever, the world’s largest consumer of palm oil, to develop oil derived from algae for use in soaps and other personal care products. The agreement followed the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between Solazyme and Unilever, in which Solazyme’s renewable algal oils were tested successfully in Unilever product formulations.
What is more, Solazyme algae based oils have been proven to offer superior health benefits when used as substitutes for vegetable oils in food products. These benefits include reduced calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, and functional benefits such as enhanced taste and texture for low-fat formulations, while also providing lower cost handling and processing requirements.
Many experts regrettably say that orangutans and Sumatran tigers are walking extinctions. But if companies like Solazyme are able to turn sustainability into profit, they might still have a chance.