From palm oil to high value by-product?

ImageWhen Decarbonize founder, Belinda Howell, started her first job after graduation as a Higher Scientific Officer for the Overseas Development and Natural Resources Institute, she never envisaged she would be re-visiting her research findings more than a decade later.

Then, Belinda’s research showed that farmed tiger prawns, produced in the aquaculture ponds of Java, Indonesia – which had replaced their natural nurseries of the mango swamps – were suffering from “blue disease”. Extraction and analysis of carotenoids from wild and farmed tiger prawns and their dietary sources demonstrated that the farmed variety were suffering from a deficiency of carotenoids. Carotenoids are a group of micro-nutrients (including ß-carotene, which are precursors of vitamin A) and pigments (which give the wild tiger prawns their vivid red & black colouring) and which have anti-oxidant properties beneficial to health.

Years later (a few too many to mention!) Decarbonize – and particularly Belinda – was delighted to be appointed to represent a group of international retailers working on sourcing sustainable palm oil. As part of the learning curve about palm oil, Belinda formed the “kernel” (excuse the pun, for those familiar with oil palm) of an idea …

Palm oil is a vegetable oil with an uniquely high level of naturally occurring of carotenoids – which make the crude oil dark red in colour. During the refining of crude palm oil, it typically undergoes bleaching and/or deodorizing processes, which ultimately remove the carotenoids with bleaching earth (fine clay particles). This ends up being “down-cycled” in to the manufacture of bricks.

This set Belinda thinking: about the high added value of natural carotenoids – not only lost during the traditional crude palm oil refining process, but also replaced in products by lower value synthetically produced carotenoids; and about the importance of closed loop cycles, if we are ever to live within the limits of resources with which this planet is endowed (see the “circular economy” pages on this website).

Decarbonize took action and invested in employing a Biochemistry undergraduate intern over the summer vacation, to research and investigate the question:

“Can Carotenoids be extracted from crude palm oil and used to create a higher value by-product, rather than destined for a down-cycled secondary stream?”


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