Russia and Ukraine are key sunflower producers – together accounting for 55% of global supply. However, the Russian invasion has made farming, producing and shipping in Ukraine all but impossible, sending global prices soaring, while Western sanctions have made the supply crunch even more acute.
But switching to a suitable alternative is not always straightforward for producers.
Sunflower oil is mainly composed of polyunsaturated linoleic acid and monounsaturated oleic acid. The proportions of these unsaturated fatty acids can be controlled through careful cultivation and post-harvest processing. It also has a neutral flavour profile, high vitamin E content and a high smoke point.
These properties, along with its relatively low cost and the role it plays in creating baked goods and snacks, as well as attributes such as shelf-life, underpin its widespread use as an ingredient.
How to get through the current sunflower oil shortage
According to the specialists in biophysics, biochemistry and food engineering at Sagentia, a science-led approach is needed to overcome the reformulating challenges that are necessary to overcome the sunflower oil crisis.
The UK R&D consultancy has published guidance on how food manufacturers can tackle these and avoid market disruption.
The free-to-use guide highlights the benefits of a structured, methodical approach, along with information on the smoke point, health and flavour characteristics of 20 sunflower oil alternatives.
In fact, Maria Spinetta, F&B sector manager at Sagentia, says these characteristics must be assessed right at the beginning of considering a replacement change.
“Understanding the scientific properties of sunflower oil and how it functions within food matrices is essential,” said Spinetta.
“When looking at alternatives, you need to consider how they will affect the individual product. For instance, in baked goods, oils impact sensory qualities such as texture and mouthfeel, whereas in packaged snacks they play a greater role in shelf life, stability and flavour.
“The smoke point is especially important in products with high processing temperatures, as using the wrong type of oil may result in rancidity and loss of nutritional value. Allergenicity is another critical consideration.”
Sustainability and cost implications
As well as potentially changing the nutritional and sensory qualities of foods, switching to a different oil has supply chain repercussions. This can impact unit economics and sustainability credentials.
In some situations, Sagentia recommends manufacturers explore different ingredients, such as hydrocolloids, or novel processing technologies to replace the need for baking or frying.
“Reformulating foods always raises a host of technical considerations related to processing, sensory properties and nutritional value,” added Spinetta.
“In today’s environment, sustainability and cost implications also need to be scrutinised. It is possible to find effective solutions to the sunflower oil shortage, but it requires deep scientific expertise combined with an understanding of the wider food sector ecosystem.”
Sagentia Innovation provides independent advisory product development services for a broad range of companies from some of the world’s leading brands to start-ups. It is part of Science Group, which also comprises Leatherhead Food Research, TSG Consulting and Frontier Smart Technologies.
With more than 400 employees worldwide, primarily scientists and engineers, the Group has two R&D centres in the UK (Cambridge and Epsom) with additional facilities in Europe, Asia and the US.