Ensuring quality from the plantation to the end product

Currently, coconut oil is experiencing a revival and there’s no question that it’s more popular than ever. However, a report by the magazine Ökotest, a German consumer magazine published since 1985, shows that even certified organic coconut oils can contain mineral oil residues. The reason for this is that the chemical structure of the raw material can sometimes accumulate MOSH/MOAH. To ensure the production of high-purity products, oil refinery expert Nutriswiss relies on controlled supply chain management.

All-rounder coconut oil can be used both in the kitchen and the bathroom — for baking, cooking and body care. Although coconut oil is now widely used, sourcing remains a challenge for the industry. Why? “Cultivation and transport are always associated with risks for oils and fats,” explains Michel Burla, CEO of Nutriswiss. “However, a controlled supply chain is even more important for coconut oil than other similar ingredients. Handling the product during transportation typically represents a major risk factor; the social conditions of the producers in the countries of origin are also a key issue. Therefore, we have installed mechanisms that guarantee the high quality of the raw material.”

Quality control: decreasing the risk of contamination

Crude oils such as coconut quickly absorb contaminants from the environment. Aggravating factors can be a lack of expertise and limited economic and technical possibilities for coconut farmers: if the cobra (the fruit flesh) is dried in the traditional way over an open fire, contaminants from the smoke can get into the final foodstuff. Burla notes: “In the EU and Switzerland, a maximum limit for the sum of four heavy polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs) of 10 ppb applies to coconut oil; owing to the hazard potential of benzo(a)pyrene, only a maximum of 2 ppb is permitted.” In addition, mineral oil residues can also originate from exhaust gases, technical oils or the additives needed to operate the machinery during pre-processing on the plantations and in the production facilities.

In terms of transportation, the longer the route, the more numerous the intermediaries and stations and, therefore, a greater risk of contam- ination. Open loading operations  and contact with pipes, ambient air and other goods in transit can cause contaminants to accumulate in the raw material. Contact with oxygen causes the oil to oxidize and become rancid. In conventional logistics chains, every kilo of crude oil is reloaded or pumped up to six times during transport. To make matters worse, only the last three shipments are documented in maritime transport. In this way, it remains unclear whether a previous cargo contained diesel oil, for example. The composition of the cargo and the hygienic purity of the containers cannot then be guaranteed. As a specialist in the processing of oils and fats, Swiss company Nutriswiss relies on procedures that ensure the delivery of the highest quality products, even if the oils are very sensitive.

Maintaining a secure supply chain

The key to high-quality crude oils is raw material sourcing. In this regard, the Swiss refinery follows an individual and very elaborate path that prioritizes quality, sustainability and social standards. The coconut oil is sourced from long-standing contractual part-ners, mainly from countries in the west and southeast of the African continent. In-house standards and controls are a prerequisite. “Only close cooperation and knowledge of local conditions provide a suitable basis for safeguarding and improving the quality of coconut oil,” explains Burla.

The collaboration makes it possible to influence the raw material´s properties, quality and, sometimes, even the harvest dates. The raw material is loaded into refinery-owned food-grade ISO containers, the purity of which is controlled by Nutriswiss. The loaded containers are sealed, tracked during transport and only opened again at the Swiss plant. This prevents contact with oxygen and foreign matter. This procedure almost completely rules out any risk of contamination from the country of origin to the processing plant. The raw materials are sampled as soon as they are filled into the containers and then examined in the Swiss quality laboratory.

Responsibility and sustainability Nutriswiss works closely with non-profit organizations and funds activities aimed at economic improvements for regional partners. This includes visiting the contract partners on site and confirming compliance with standards. “Many small farmers and their families earn a large part of their livelihood from the sale of coconut oil. We therefore see it as our responsibility to continuously improve the situation on site,” says Burla. The cooperation with the plantation operators is designed for the long-term. Only in this way can improvements be developed, tested and established during several harvest cycles. Nutriswiss is happy to share its knowledge about possible contamination: “In the long run, the growers benefit from long-lasting coconut palms and high-quality yields, which is our common goal,” says Burla. Representatives from the refinery check and document processes on site and ensure that the coconut oil meets the highest standards of quality.

Manufacturers and processors of vegetable oils are faced with increasingly strict limits. These regulations are an expression of a political and social system that’s striving for the highest levels of food safety. “Sensitive oils, such as coconut oil, comprise part of the daily business of many food manufacturers and also for us. Whether for infant food or other applications, we always put a great emphasis on the highest quality and a balanced recipe,” notes Burla.

Purification for highest quality Once at the plant, the company’s own quality laboratory not only provides a detailed review of the extent of possible contamination, but is also responsible for checking the finishing process: a compre-hensive fat index profile is created for each product before, during and after processing. Burla comments: “The degree of pre-contamination of the raw material varies greatly, which is why our processes are as flexible as possible. This allows us to get the best out of every raw material in terms of the analytical  and sensory properties that match the final product we are aiming for.”  Nevertheless, it’s clear that the material that leaves the Nutriswiss plant is significantly less contaminated than the goods provided: “The detected values of MOSH/MOAH are much lower, as are the pesticide residues; these are remarkable effects,” Burla confirms.

The raw material is then alkaline neutralized, bleached, filtered and finally deodorized. Unlike traditional vegetable oil refining, Nutriswiss does not require the time- and temperature-intensive processes for the removal of pesticides and mineral oil residues (MOSH/MOAH). Instead, the com-pany relies on physical treatment using modern distillation technology followed by mild deodorization. In this way, the formation of process contaminants is minimized, while pesticides, MOSH/MOAH, polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAH) and plasticizers such as DEHP are significantly reduced. At the same time, valuable ingredients are protected and yield losses are minimized.

Nutriswiss supports customers from initial idea to market maturity and offers pilot-scale modification trials. A large part of the Nutriswiss portfolio comprises special products that are developed and tested to meet customers’ specific requirements. How exactly the profile of an oil is modified or whether a special blend is developed depends strongly on the respective application. At the end, customers receive a protocol that precisely documents the quality differences between the input values and those of the final product. Nutriswiss successfully masters the balancing act between moderate process parameters and effective purification based on many years of expertise with sensitive special oils. Diligence, monitoring in the company’s own laboratory and the innovative combination of technical processes ensure that the refined product always shows measured values that are close to the detection limit(s).

One product, many applications Depending on the room temperature, coconut oil can be solid (below 25 °C) or creamy or liquid (above 25 °C). Owing to its high content of saturated fatty acids, it’s very heat-stable and ideal for baking, cooking and deep frying. However, it’s also often used as an alternative to palm oil as it has similar technological properties. In the development of palm-free filling fats, couvertures and glaze masses for the chocolate and confectionery industry, coconut oil serves as a structuring base and also produces a cooling effect in the mouth. It gives vegan alternative products such as vegetable cream cheese the necessary firmness and ensures a pleasant melting sensation. Coconut oil is also used in cosmetics such as body or haircare products.

Swiss expertise, global reach

Nutriswiss AG specializes in the refining of high-quality, tailor-made edible fats and is the Swiss leader in special and organic products. For national and international food manufacturers, the catering, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, as well as artisan bakers, crude oils from all over the world are neutralized, bleached, modified by fractionation, transesterification or hydrogenation, mixed and deodorized.

Burla concludes: “It’s important to remove impurities and residues from oils, to optimize their properties and to  source the raw materials sustainably. At the same time, both consumer demand and legal requirements must be met. We take our responsibilities very seriously; what leaves our plant is a perfectly safe food.” At its headquarters in Lyss in the canton of Berne in Switzerland, a total of 90 employees produce around 55,000 tonnes of high-purity edible oils and fats annually, 95% of which are of vegetable origin. Manufacturers can purchase the oils that have been imported and processed by Nutriswiss directly. In addition, it’s possible to have self-provided oil processed on a contract refining and manufacturing basis. The Swiss company refines batches in the range of 500–2500 kg. This makes it possible to refine even very small quantities of rare oils, for example, to develop suitable fat components for novel foods.