Palm oil is one of the world's most common ingredients since it's cheap, easy to grow, and versatile. But the versatility of this ingredient comes at a steep price. Palm oil production is responsible for a devastating impact on the environment, including deforestation, excessive water usage, and direct threats to endangered species across South America and Asia. Plus, high in saturated fat, palm oil is terrible for your heart health. But researchers may have found a viable substitute: microalgae.

A team of researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore published a study in the Journal of Applied Phycology that claims that oil from microalgae could work as a healthier, more sustainable substitute for palm oil. The team proposed that microalgae –created by photosynthesizing microorganisms that live in salt or freshwater – would greatly minimize the environmental damages by replacing dependence on palm oil.

Despite calls for a boycott, palm oil is still the most common oil vegetable oil used on the planet. In 2020 alone, over 73 million tons of palm oil were consumed globally. That's because it's cheaper than most other foods to grow: The plant that makes it, the African oil palm, can produce up to 10 times more oil per hectare than soybeans

Health benefits of microalgae

The researchers also found that microalgae would be significantly healthier than palm oil, which has 7 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, or about the same amount as butter. Saturated fat has been linked to heart disease, a higher risk of strokes, and other chronic diseases, including inflammation and type 2 diabetes. The only oil that is worse is coconut oil which has 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. Healthier oils include olive (with just 1.9 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon) and avocado which has 1.6 grams per tablespoon).

The microalgae contain more polyunsaturated fatty acids which are known to reduce cholesterol levels. Algae oil has a higher level of monounsaturated fats than most other cooking oils (these are the good kinds of fats that are heat stable.) Just one tablespoon of algae oil gives you roughly 13 grams of monounsaturated fat, which is equal to one avocado.

The microalgae-based oil also contains about 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, or one-third coconut and roughly half what palm oil has. These tropical oils have been linked to higher rates of stroke and heart disease, whereas microalgae-based, with its healthy fat profile, could potentially have the opposite effect.

“Developing these plant-based oils from algae is yet another triumph for NTU Singapore as we look to find successful ways to tackle problems in the agri-food-tech chain, especially those that have an adverse impact on the environment," Director of NTU's Food Science and Technology Program William Chen DSc. said. “Uncovering this as a potential human food source is an opportunity to lessen the impact the food supply chain has on our planet.”

To conduct this experiment, the NTU researchers partnered with another team from the University of Malaya in Malaysia. Together, the coalition developed microalgae oil that could potentially replace palm oil as an ingredient across multiple categories. The researchers proved the oil would be suitable for edible applications, claiming that it could have widespread benefits for the agri-food-tech industry.

Palm oil is an ingredient found in nearly half of all consumer products. Estimates show that farmers produced 77 million tons of palm oil in 2018, and expected the number to rise to 107.6 million tonnes by 2024. While efforts to boycott palm oil have surfaced in recent years, many activists are stunted by the firm grasp palm oil has on the market. The NTU researchers aim to find a substitute that is more affordable than the industry could potentially adopt.

“Our solution is a three-pronged approach to solving three pressing issues," Chen said. "We are capitalizing on the concept of establishing a circular economy, finding uses for would-be waste products, and re-injecting them into the food chain. In this case, we rely on one of nature’s key processes, fermentation, to convert that organic matter into nutrient-rich solutions, which could be used to cultivate algae, which not only reduces our reliance on palm oil but keeps carbon out of the atmosphere.”

The researcher's efforts will potentially curb the need for palm oil in products and lessen its impact on climate change. The tests are proving that microalgae are far more sustainable since they can be grown in most underwater environments. The naturally regenerative source would have less impact on the environment compared to palm oil production. Microalgae oil could be an answer to the fight to preserve biodiversity.

For more coverage on the planet and sustainability, visit The Beet's Environmental News articles.

Top 10 Sources of Plant-Based Protein According to a Nutritionist

More From The Beet