First there was lard. For at least 200 years, a unconfined many Americans fried their potatoes in pork fat. Then, early last century, came the invention of Crisco, a lard look-alike made from cottonseed oil. Procter & Gamble advertised it as healthier — increasingly digestible — than pig grease. The marketing wayfarers worked. Crisco took off. 

Its success gave lineage to a new era of cooking fats. Americans today slosh a long, golden stream of vegetable oils: soybean, palm, safflower, sunflower, peanut, avocado, coconut, canola, olive. The plants cultivated to make these oils now imbricate nearly a quarter of the planet’s cropland, and demand for them is still growing. That’s not good news for the Earth. To grow oil crops, particularly palm and soybeans, farming corporations are wearing lanugo carbon-rich forests, threatening climate goals and biodiversity. 

But what if there was a cooking oil that didn’t momentum deforestation? A California startup tabbed Zero Acre Farms claims to have created just that. Zero Acre hopes its product, tabbed Cultured Oil considering it’s made by fermenting sugarcane, will shift American diets like Crisco did, but to a variegated end. The visitor says its oil requires 90 percent less land and finance for 86 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than soybean oil, the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the United States. 

“If we’re going to protract to satisfy our insatiable desire for oils and fats,” said Stephen del Cardayre, Zero Acre’s co-founder and senior technical officer, “we have to do it increasingly efficiently.”

A hand drizzle Zero Acre Farms cooking oil over a pan of carrots.
Zero Acre oil is drizzled over a pan of carrots. Zero Acre Farms

The startup’s new cooking oil is starting to proceeds attention. Zero Acre has raised millions of dollars from venture wanted funds linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and the two-face Robert Downey Jr. In September, Shake Shack announced it would test Cultured Oil on its fries at two of its New York City restaurants. Grocery stores aren’t selling sleek stainless steel bottles of the oil yet, but you can buy one on Zero Acre’s website for $26.99. 

Cultured Oil, which has a soft yellow hue like other oils, is made by microorganisms. Add sugarcane to a vat filled with algae, and the microscopic beings convert the sugar into oil. The result, equal to Zero Acre, is a liquid that’s healthier than its counterparts considering it’s low in saturated and polyunsaturated fats, the sort that have given seed oils a bad (if possibly undeserved) rap for contributing to chronic inflammation and heart disease.

This probably isn’t the first time you’ve encountered a lab megacosm that’s advertised with a list of impressive stats well-nigh how it will save the planet. Climate-conscious eaters have been under a thundercrack of new choices stemming from the proliferation of products aimed at replacing cow milk, beef, and other carbon-intensive meats. Whether it’s oat milk, plant-based burgers, or lab-grown chicken, the supplies sector is topfull with claims of sustainability, some of which don’t hold up under scrutiny. Maybe you’ve made up your mind to eat a Beyond Burger instead of a whinge one, and now you’re wondering whether to sear the novel meat in novel oil.

Grist spoke with three self-sustaining experts well-nigh how to assess untried claims well-nigh new supplies products like Zero Acre’s oil. Each stressed that the only way is to squint at something tabbed a life trundling assessment, nicknamed LCA — the wringer that a visitor uses to determine the land, energy, and water use associated with its product and to compare it to other products. 

“Without the LCA, I can’t make anything of it,” said Sarah Collier, an teammate professor and supplies sustainability researcher at the University of Washington. 

The mere fact that a life trundling towage has been done, plane by a third party (as in the specimen of Zero Acre), isn’t unbearable to inspire confidence, experts said. That’s considering these analyses can be built in a way that makes a company’s product squint largest than its competitors’. There are a variety of ways to grow oil crops, and variegated growing systems use variegated amounts of land and emit variegated amounts of greenhouse gases. In the specimen of Cultured Oil, the kinds of soybean farms or palm plantations that you compare versus the sugarcane operations that feed Zero Acre’s microbes could lead to variegated conclusions. 

“If you segregate baselines that aren’t really equivalent, you can end up making your practice squint really, really good, and you can moreover end up making a competitor’s practice or a legacy practice very bad,” said Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Supplies Program. “If I wanted to make soy-based land squint really bad, I would include the largest estimates virtually the worst kinds of deforestation.” 

Like many companies, Zero Acre has not made its towage public, so it’s not possible to verify independently how the boundaries of the wringer were drawn. But a spokesperson for the visitor did say that its comparison with soybean oil relies on data from soybean production in South America, the same region where the sugarcane used to make Zero Acre oil is grown. Del Cardayre told Grist that Zero Acre plans to publicly release its results once the visitor is worthier and increasingly stable but is keeping the towage private for now considering it contains proprietary information. 

“We try to be as transparent as we can,” del Cardayre said. “Our whole goal, the reason we were founded, was to make largest oils and fats that were largest for the planet, for the body, and for food. It’s what drives us. It’s our North Star. We have no interest in doing something that’s not doing that.”

Independent experts well-set that Zero Acre’s oil holds promise. Joseph Poore, a supplies sustainability researcher at the University of Oxford, said in an email that the company’s goal to minimize environmental forfeiture and modernize human health is “excellent and critical.” Vegetable oil production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and rising demand for oil crops like palm has been linked to habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. But Poore and other academics moreover said that it’s too early to know how much largest for the environment Cultured Oil will be. 

“A lot of academics are going to be skeptical considering we’ve heard it before,” said Julie Guthman, a professor of social sciences who studies supplies systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

Two years ago, Guthman co-authored a paper that investigated claims of “dematerialization” in the volitional proteins industry — referring to the idea, pushed by Silicon Valley startups, that edible protein can be made “from (nearly) nothing, drawing on well-healed or mundane resources” that presumably have no environmental drawbacks. 

In the paper, Guthman and her colleague Charlotte Biltekoff found that the details of how these foods get produced “are largely black-boxed, making any claims to vanishment towards as magic.” Food-tech companies aren’t necessarily trying to alimony consumers in the dark, but they finger pressure, in their quests to woo investors and reshape the world, not to divulge trade secrets. The way they represent their products, Guthman and Biltekoff wrote, obfuscates increasingly than it reveals and makes it “difficult, if not impossible, for the public — or anyone really — to meaningfully assess the promises and their potential consequences.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Cooking oil has a deforestation problem. A startup says it has a solution. on Oct 11, 2023.