Palm oil can be a great ingredient, but also an extremely problematic one.
It’s inexpensive and versatile, and palm oil is effective in a wide variety of different food products. But it’s also often associated with deforestation as tropical forests have been clear-cut to make way for oil-producing palms. Human rights abuses involving workers who harvest the fruits also are widely reported. And export bans from the South Asian countries that produce the vast majority of the world’s crop adds another degree of instability.
Edible oils giant AAK has a new solution to these issues. The company recently partnered with Arzeda, a leader in using enzymes to create new proteins, to improve the sustainability and efficiency of plant-based oils.
Arzeda CEO Alexandre Zanghellini said the company has had its eye on the food space for a long time.
His company plans to use its technology to design enzymes that can transform easy-to-get oils into ones with other properties. For example, it could turn soybean oil into a product that has some of the desirable qualities of palm oil but without environmental issues, human rights questions or export challenges.
“Having better biotechnological solutions allows you to think, and for the first time, be able to produce a similar type of product that we have today from these less sustainable oils to things that are much more sustainably sourced,” Zanghellini said.
The question, he said, is “how do you modify lipids one way or another to go from a certain input to a certain output and finished product?”
Arzeda’s answer is meticulously designed enzymes. The company uses a suite of tools to create enzymes that can produce customized proteins. These proteins may not be found in nature, but in the targeted oil, they can make a desired behavior, Zanghellini said. As a result, the enzymes can enhance both sustainability and performance.
Creating the enzymes is the most difficult part of the work, Zanghellini said. Arzeda’s technique has the advantages of other biotechnology: low temperatures, not many solvent-type chemicals, and no toxicity from the process, he noted. Unlike other tech-enabled production techniques, including fermentation, enzymatic conversion requires no genetically modified organisms.
Once the enzymatic conversion is perfected, Zanghellini said it’s relatively easy to do it at a large scale.
In a press release, AAK officials said they look forward to the partnership.
“AAK is thrilled to work with Arzeda to address one of the food industry’s most pressing issues, sustainable plant-based edible oils,” Karsten Nielsen, AAK’s chief technology officer, said in a statement. “We are confident that their full-stack technology platform, spanning AI-based design to enzyme manufacturing, can help accelerate our innovation efforts in biotechnology.”
Still, getting the optimized oils created and to market will likely take multiple years, Zanghellini said. The companies must figure out how to design, manufacture and utilize the enzymes. However, because of its precision design process, Arzeda can likely do this work faster than other companies in the food business, he added.
Arzeda has done similar work with enzymatic solutions for many big companies — including BP and Unilever’s cleaning and laundry products — to create more sustainable products.
This is Arzeda’s first work in the food business, Zanghellini said, but the company has had its eye on the space for some time. Aside from oils, Zanghellini said there are other areas in food the company may be interested in, including high-intensity sweetener creation and plant-protein processing.
“We've seen the economic supply chain being disrupted [and] increased growth of a population who need to have sustainable production of food ingredients,” he said. “It's an exciting, large growing market, where enzymes can play a critical role, which is not true for every market.”