The world runs on vegetable oil. It is the third most consumed food in the world after rice and wheat. It’s in your morning croissant and your oat milk, your salad dressing, your afternoon snack bar, and your midnight cookie.
Our obsession with vegetable oil is so great that we use more land – about 20% to 30% of all agricultural land in the world – for vegetable oil crops than for fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts combined. All this leads to devastating deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change. But what if we could grow cooking oil in a lab?
[Photo: Zero Acre]Zero Acre’s first product, launched today, is a cooking oil made by fermentation: the cultured oil is high in healthy fats and low in bad fats, and is produced on 85% less land than canola oil, emits 86% less CO2 than canola oil. soybean oil and requires 99% less water than olive oil. At $29.99, it’s significantly more expensive than its vegetable counterpart, but replacing just 5% of the vegetable oils used in the US with so-called cultured oil would free up 3.1 million acres of land each year, according to the company.
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, co-founder and CEO of Zero Acre, has been trying to get them out of the food system for years — first with a keto-friendly restaurant called Kitava in San Francisco, then with nutrition-tracking software. Now his company wants to make cooking oil by fermenting microbes instead of harvesting crops.
[Photo: Zero Acre]Conventionally, vegetable oil is made by crushing parts of a vegetable or seed (such as sunflower seeds or olives) and extracting the oil. “Cultivated oil”, on the other hand, is made by fermentation.
So let’s go back a little bit. Fermentation involves a naturally occurring chemical reaction between two main groups of ingredients: microorganisms and natural sugars. Microorganisms include bacteria, microalgae, yeasts and other fungi; natural sugars can be found in a variety of products, from wheat to milk to grapes.
For example, to make wine, winemakers add yeast to grape juice. The yeast then converts the natural sugars of the grapes into ethanol and you have a crisp glass of chardonnay. But you can thank fermentation for a plethora of other foods like bread, cheese, yogurt, pickles, and even chocolate.
When it comes to cooking oil, the process is similar. Nobbs won’t reveal the exact type of microorganism used to produce Zero Acre’s Cultured Oil, but he says the company works with both non-GMO yeast and microalgae. “We focus on cultures that naturally produce healthy fats, and yeast and microalgae do that efficiently,” he says.
The process starts with a proprietary culture consisting of food-producing microorganisms (yeast or microalgae) that are fed natural plants such as sugar beets and sugar cane. (The company doesn’t grow these directly, but both are part of the supply chain.)
Over the course of a few days, the microorganisms convert the natural plant sugars into oils or fats. The resulting mixture is then pressed and the oil is released, separated, filtered and cultured oil is born. (Nobbs describes the taste as “slightly buttery,” although you can only taste it when held upright with a spoon.)
[Photo: Zero Acre]Nobbs says the entire process takes less than a week, compared to soybean oil (the most widely consumed oil in the US), which takes six months for the seeds to mature. His company’s Cultured Oil also requires 90% less land to produce than soybean oil. (The only reason the company needs land is to grow sugar cane, although Nobbs aims to eventually use sugars in existing food waste, such as corncobs and orange peels, bringing the amount of land needed closer to zero, hence ‘Zero Acre’ .)
That is, if the company succeeds in scaling up. According to Kyria Boundy-Mills, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis who has studied yeast oils for the past 10 years, “microbial oils” like the ones Zero Acre produces have been studied for at least 80 years, “mostly for fuel,” she says. via email.
Boundy-Mills recalls a biotechnology company called TerraVia (formerly Solazyme), which developed a technology to make biodiesel from microalgae. TerraVia then switched and used it to create the first culinary algae oil on the market, reaching Walmart but being discontinued a few years later.
It’s a cautionary tale for Zero Acre, but “fermentation is a mature technology,” says Boundy-Mills, pointing out that yeasts and microalgae have been grown in large-scale commercial fermentations for decades. The challenge remains the price.
“Digestion is faster than growing crops, but the capital and operating costs of fermentation plants are much, much more per acre than farmland,” she says. (Zero Acre runs a research facility in San Mateo and has raised $37 million to date.)
A bottle of Zero Acre cultured oil isn’t cheap, but as demand grows, Nobbs hopes economies of scale will help the company reduce costs. “We want to kick off the flywheel, but it will take some time to replace 200 million metric tons [of vegetable oil],” he says.
Nobbs also looks at solid fats that could replace palm shortening, and foods that come with cultured oil as an ingredient, noting, “We want an ecosystem to evolve around cultured oil in the same way it does around olive oil.”
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