KU Leuven: New vegetable fat enables improvement of cholesterol-lowering products

In a healthy diet, saturated fats are only present to a limited extent. Saturated fats have a negative effect on the cholesterol level in the blood. That’s why food companies have been looking for ways to reduce the amount of saturated fats in their products and replace them with unsaturated fats for decades.

Sterolife is an odorless and colorless unsaturated fat that is nevertheless solid at room temperature.
That substitution is no mean feat because the two types of fat have different properties. Saturated fats, such as palm oil and coconut oil, are solid at room temperature. This is important for the texture, hardness and spreadability of the products. Unsaturated fats such as olive oil and sunflower oil are liquid and therefore do not have those structuring properties.

Researchers from KU Leuven Campus Kulak Kortrijk have succeeded in developing an unsaturated fat that is solid at room temperature. “Our product, which we have named Sterolife, is an odorless and colorless solid fat,” says Dr Eva Daels of the Food & Lipids research group. “With these properties, Sterolife can reduce the saturated fat content of products without sacrificing quality and texture.”

Sustainable alternative
Sterolife is made from plant sterols. These substances are naturally present in various vegetable products such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and grains, albeit in small amounts.

“The use of plant sterols offers environmental and sustainability benefits. These substances can be found in by-products of existing production processes,” explains Professor Imogen Foubert, promoter of the research project. “That is in stark contrast to the production of palm oil, the most consumed fat in the world. Production takes place exclusively in tropical areas and is accompanied by deforestation of rainforests, loss of biodiversity and huge CO2 emissions.”

Cholesterol-lowering products
Eva Daels obtained an innovation mandate from VLAIO (Flemish Agency Innovation & Entrepreneurship) to further develop the product and bring it to market in the future. For example, it will be tested whether and how Sterolife can be used as an ingredient in food products. In the first place, the researchers are looking at existing cholesterol-lowering products.

“Foods advertised as cholesterol-lowering still contain a significant amount of saturated fat. So there is still gain to be made in that area and we hope to contribute to that with Sterolife,” says Dr Daels. “In the first place, this concerns margarines, spreads and bakery products such as cookies, muffins and cereal bars. We will test how our fat behaves in these specific products and use that knowledge to further fine-tune the production process. There are still several hurdles to overcome, but we believe Sterolife can become a game changer in the food industry and in the search for healthy alternatives to existing high-fat products.”

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