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Synthetic palm oil from the laboratory: these are the challenges – News

Synthetic palm oil from the laboratory: these are the challenges – News

In croissants, in shampoo, in biofuels: palm oil is found in many places. But tropical oil is controversial, as large swaths of rainforests around the world are being cut down for it. So the first companies are trying to produce synthetic palm oil in the laboratory. Frank Möllering knows the difficulties companies face. He conducts research on alternatives to palm oil at the food company Nutriswiss.

Frank Mullering

Head of R&D, Nutriswiss

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Möllering is Head of R&D at Nutriswiss. Among other things, he is looking for alternatives to palm oil.

SRF News: What are the opportunities for synthetic palm oil?

Frank Möllering: I see the chances as small because the production process is relatively expensive.

Why is this process so expensive?

The processes are complex and difficult to control. Closed systems must be kept completely clean. For example, under clean room conditions in a reactor, microorganisms in dark aqueous solutions are fed with sugar solutions. To do this, the appropriate microorganisms that produce the appropriate fatty acids must be found.

Palm oil is one of the few fats found in nature that is naturally solid.

It should be similar to palm oil so that the profile more or less matches that of palm oil. To do this you have to emphasize this organism; For example, by cooling it down and then warming it up again or by causing overfeeding and malnutrition.

A man collects bunches of fresh fruit during harvest at a palm oil plantation in Indonesia.


Palm oil is mainly obtained from the fruits of the oil palm. “The fermented product made from microalgae is about 40 times more expensive than palm oil,” says Müllering.

Reuters/Willi Kurniawan

Wouldn't synthetic palm oil be more sustainable?

We have looked for other solutions in recent years. Switzerland ensures that palm oil comes from sustainable agriculture. Independent oversight bodies attest to this. Organic farming was also encouraged. Palm oil productivity per hectare is also much better than that of other oils – 5 to 10 times higher than rapeseed oil, for example.

A villager rides a motorcycle on a palm oil plantation in Indonesia.


Natural palm oil is controversial: rainforests are being cut down and orangutans are losing their habitat. An alternative option is to rely on organic palm oil.

Reuters/Ronnie Bintang

What alternative has the potential to replace all-natural palm oil?

Palm oil is now being replaced in many products. These products are based on sunflower, rapeseed or coconut oil, which we modify using complex processes. Some of them are hydrogenated to produce solid fats. It is then further modified to match the desired enamel.

Why is it so difficult to find an alternative to this palm oil? What makes it unique?

Palm oil is one of the few fats found in nature that is naturally solid. This is the great advantage of palm oil for all applications that require solid fats, for example: chocolate fillings, pastry layers, shortening or sauce powder. There is a famous saying: “It doesn't melt in your hand, it melts in your mouth.” This solid fat makes it melt in your mouth. You can't achieve this with regular oils.

A Laderach employee uses a tool to create a triangle-shaped relief on the still-warm chocolate.


Thanks to its structural properties, palm oil ensures a special “melt-in-your-mouth” mouthfeel.

Keystone / Gaetan Bali

Interview conducted by Nikoleta Georgiev.