The world runs on vegetable oil. It is the third most consumed food globally after rice and wheat. it’s in your morning croissant and your oat milkYour salad dressing, your afternoon snack bar, and your midnight cookie.
Our obsession with vegetable oil is so great that we use more landVegetable oil crops account for about 20% to 30% of all the world’s agricultural area – compared to fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. All this leads to catastrophic deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change. But what if we could grow cooking oil in a lab?
launching today, zero acres The first product is a cooking oil made by fermentation: high in healthy fats and low in bad fats, its cultured oil is produced using 85% less land than canola oil, 86% less than soybean oil. emits CO2, and requires 99% less water. Olive Oil. At $29.99, it’s significantly more expensive than its vegetable counterpart, but by replacing only 5% of the vegetable oils used in the U.S. with so-called cultured oil, the company claims, emptying 3.1 million acres of land each year. Will give
Vegetable oils are bad for the environment, but they have also been linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer and other diseases. That’s why Jeff Nobbs, cofounder and CEO of Zero Acre, has been trying to kick them out of the food system for years—first with a keto-friendly restaurant called Kitwa in San Francisco, then with nutrition-tracking software. Now his company is looking to make cooking oil by fermenting microbes instead of harvesting crops.
Traditionally, vegetable oil is made by crushing parts of a vegetable or seed (such as sunflower seeds or olives) and extracting the oil. “cultured oil,” on the other hand, is made by fermentation.
So let’s back up a little. Fermentation involves a naturally occurring chemical reaction between two main groups of ingredients: microorganisms and natural sugars. Microorganisms include bacteria, microorganisms, yeast and other fungi; Natural sugars can be found in a variety of products, from wheat to milk to grapes.
To make wine, for example, winemakers add yeast to grape juice. The yeast then converts, or ferments, the grape’s natural sugars into ethanol, and you have yourself a crisp glass of chardonnay. But you can thank fermentation for the abundance of other foods like bread, cheese, yogurt, pickles, and even chocolate.
When it comes to cooking oil, the process is similar. Nobbs would not disclose the exact type of microorganism being used to produce Zero Acre’s cultured oil, but he says the company works with both non-GMO yeast and microalgae. “We focused on cultures that naturally produce healthy fats, and yeast and microalgae do so efficiently,” he says.
The process begins with a proprietary culture made from food-producing microorganisms (yeast or microalgae) that is fed to natural plants such as sugar beet and sugarcane. (The company doesn’t develop these directly, but both are part of its supply chain.)
Over the course of a few days, microorganisms convert or ferment natural plant sugars into oils or fats. The resulting mixture is then pressurized and the oil is released, separated, filtered, and cultured oil is yielded. (Knobbs describes the flavor as “mildly buttery,” though you can only taste it if you spoon it straight.)
Nobbs says the whole process takes less than a week, compared to soybean oil (the most widely consumed oil in America), which only requires a six-month period for the seeds to mature. His company’s cultured oil also requires 90% less land to produce soybean oil. (The only reason the company needs land is to grow sugarcane, though Knobbs eventually wishes to use the sugars in existing food waste like corncobs and orange peels, bringing the amount of land closer to zero, so “Zero Acre”.
If the company manages on a large scale. According to Kyria Boundy-Mils, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, who has studied yeast oils for the past 10 years, producing “microbial oils” such as One Zero Acre has been studied for at least 80 years. Has been done, “mostly for fuel,” she says via email.
Boundy-Mills recalls a biotechnology company called TerraVia (formerly Solazyme), which developed a technology for making biodiesel from microalgae. Terravia then switched gears and used it to make the first culinary algae oil on the market, which made it at Walmart but was off a few years later.
It’s a cautionary tale for Zero Acre, but “fermentation is a mature technology,” Boundy-Mills says, noting that yeasts and microalgae have been grown extensively in commercial fermentation for decades. The challenge remains the price.
“Fermentation is faster than growing crops, but the capital and operating costs of fermentation facilities are much higher per acre than on farms,” she says. (Zero Acre runs a research center in San Mateo and has raised $37 million to date.)
A bottle of Zero Acre’s Cultural Oil isn’t cheap, but as demand picks up, Knobbs hopes the economy of scale will help the company keep costs down. “We want to start the flywheel, but it will take some time to replace the 200 million metric tons [of vegetable oil],” he says.
Nobbs is also eyeing solid fats that can replace palm shortening, and foods that come with cultured oil as an ingredient, noting, “We want an ecosystem that can replace cultured oil.” develop around the same way it has evolved around olive oil.”