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Manufacturing ‘the perfect fat’ with oleogel technology

Article-Manufacturing ‘the perfect fat’ with oleogel technology

© iStock/Ivan-balvan RS, fat, liquid oil, Ivan-balvan, iStock-1287850927.jpg
Using food science and material physics, Finnish start-up Perfat claims to have developed a solid fat alternative that is healthier and more sustainable, while maintaining full functionality.

The company’s innovative lipid technology was recognised as the standout innovation in the ‘new proteins’ category at the FoodTech Challengers competition on 30 May 2024 during the second day of the FoodTech Congress 2024 in Warsaw, Poland.

Solid fats are an unmissable ingredient in many applications – baked goods, dairy products, and meat replacements simply do not function the same way without them. However, long-standing concerns over the intake of harmful trans fats and saturated fats remain very important to consumers, and solid fats from coconut oil, butter, and palm oil are also often linked to unsustainable practices. These issues have driven research into functional alternatives through the use of proteins, emulsifiers, and polysaccharides – but these replacements often still result in diminished functionality.

A functional fat with added fibre

According to Perfat’s CEO, Jyrki Lee-Korhonen, the fat conundrum is simple, but until recently, unsolved: “Everyone needs fats, they are absolutely critical for us. Twenty-five to thirty percent of daily energy intake should come from fats. The problem is that there are good fats and there are bad fats. The good fats are in liquid form. The downside is that they don't typically work in many food applications.” Lee-Korhonen claims that Perfat is a perfect fat - a fat that is both healthy and functional. “It has 80% less saturated fats than traditional fats, up to 30% fewer calories, and unlike any other fat, it’s got plenty of dietary fibre.”

This means that food producers can offer healthier food products to consumers, and have the evidence to back it up - which can help products raise their NutriScore from D to B. Perfat offers its ingredient to food producers who can use them in different applications.

“Our fat has been proven to work across different types of applications, from bakery to dairy, to plant-based meats. The solution is based on advanced oleogel technology. And in essence, we can work with any vegetable oil, and we give it the structure of a solid fat,” said Lee-Korhonen.

Leveraging advanced oleogel research

The company, which has its roots in oleogel research conducted by Fabio Valoppi at the University of Udine in Italy, emerged as a spin-out from the University of Helsinki in 2023. Since then, it has ramped up its commercial and fundraising activities. In March 2024, the startup closed a €1 million seed round led by Nordic Science Investments, and it is generating revenues of €300,000 annually.

The secret behind Perfat’s healthier fat alternative lies in the use of oleogels, through a technology it calls oleogel-squared, which has industrial scalability and is tested and proven with off-the-shelf equipment. The structuration process, which has two patents pending, involves emulsification, encapsulation, and assembly of any liquid oil into solid form.

Affordable commodities which can be sourced in a relatively sustainable manner, like sunflower or rapeseed oil, can also be treated using this technology. This offers opportunities for fully vegan traditional fat replacements, and it means that the final product could eventually be produced at a price point equal to established products like butter. However, reaching this point requires setting up an industrial plant and scaling up production significantly.

Diverse applications from ice cream and supplements to frying oils

The scientists at Perfat are not alone in pursuing the application of oleogel technology in the food industry. While it is a nascent area of research, there are already other promising results. An open-access review of oleogels as a fat substitute in food, published in the journal MDPI in 2023, found several promising avenues for further study.

Among other uses, the authors found that oleogels that are safe for consumption could be used as a dietary supplement and as a way to increase the bioavailability of active substances like vitamin E, phytosterols, and lycopene. Some of the standout applications for oleogels in food products include replacing traditional stabilisers in peanut butter, as a frying medium alternative to palm oil, and as a wax in ice cream and chocolate paste.