Alternative to hexane: Methyloxolane’s EU approval poised to accelerate food reformulation
21 Feb 2023 --- Following EU approval of the natural solvent methyloxolane as a permitted processing aid for manufacturing food ingredients, producers now have an alternative to petroleum-derived hexane, which will come under intense scrutiny by European health authorities in the months ahead.
Methyloxolane is an organic liquid solvent and a byproduct of sugarcane bagasse, the dry pulpy fibrous material that remains after crushing sugarcane or sorghum stalks to extract their juice.
The EU Commission approved the use of the extraction solvent for the production of fats, oils, cocoa butter, in the preparation of defatted protein products, defatted flours, defatted cereal germs and flavoring from natural flavoring materials.
Laurence Jacques, managing director at EcoXtract, speaks with FoodIngredientsFirst about the modification of Directive 2009/32/EC by the European Parliament and explains the background of hexane and why methyloxolane can prove to be a viable alternative.
“Hexane has been recognized as a proven neurotoxicant for humans and cause of occupational disease since February 1973 in France. It is also classified as the cause of occupational disease in Germany and Italy,” says Jacques.
“However, it remained wrongly classified as “suspected neurotoxic” by its suppliers. Only recently, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) launched a process to have it reclassified as “proven neurotoxic for humans.” This new classification will be effective in Europe in June 2023 at the latest,” she continues.
This will make hexane enter into the “most harmful substances” category and should trigger action from the European authorities.
Industry still uses hexane extraction as it “remains the cheapest way to extract oil, proteins and flavors and fragrances.”
However, reformulation is on the horizon as the updated classification means manufacturers and brands are keen to clean up the label.
Switching from hexane to methyloxolane
EcoXtract, which supplies methyloxolane, says that companies only need minor modifications to switch from hexane extraction.
“The modification can be done within one month, during annual plant shutdowns. For a motivated player, it is possible to turn its plant from hexane to methyloxolane extraction within one year,” notes Jacques.
The European Food and Safety Authority reported in March 2022 that methyloxolane is a safe solvent for use in the food industry. The authority’s positive opinion was based on a complete application dossier review of scientific studies.
Toxicity of hexane
A 2022 study – Towards substitution of hexane as extraction solvent of food Products and ingredients with no regrets – published in the US National Library of Medicine last year also concluded that the toxicity of hexane has been known for decades, but still “the real toxicity of this substance may be underestimated.”
High levels of hexane are found in the general population through ingesting residues in various foods, especially vegetable oils.
“Although oils with a hexane concentration of less than 1 mg/kg are legally compliant in the EU, the few studies on the effects of chronic oral hexane intake do not provide solid scientific evidence that the intake of low levels of hexane over a prolonged period of time is safe for human health,” highlights the study.
Nonetheless, the authors note that there is an increased demand for hexane every year, which “suggests that there is no real incentive in industry to replace this toxic solvent.”
“As hexane is currently considered a “processing aid,” it is exempt from labeling on food packaging, and consumer awareness of its still extensive use in the food industry is likely to be extremely low.”
“This lack of public concern may be the main reason why this substance is still in use more than 50 years after it was shown to be neurotoxic to humans.”
According to Jacques, over one million tons of hexane are used each year in food processing worldwide.
This poses the question of “can enough methyloxolane be produced currently to replace hexane?.
Methyloxolane, natural alternative
The EU approval also allows industry players to develop more environmentally friendly ingredients for their customers.
Methyloxolane is derived from renewable carbon and its production has a low CO2 footprint, with its release in the atmosphere not contributing to global warming.
Besides sugarcane bagasse, methyloxolane can be produced from any vegetable source rich in hemicellulose, such as corn cob, wood or sunflower husk.
“If you consider only the sugarcane bagasse, more than 400 million tons are produced each year worldwide. They are generally burned to produce energy for the sugarcane mill,” explains Jacques.
“To produce the 1 million ton solvent needed to substitute all the hexane used in food, we would need to mobilize 20 million tons of sugarcane bagasse, add one step, which will take 10% (2 million tons) of its weight to produce the methyloxolane raw material and release the remaining 18 million tons to be burned to produce energy,” she continues.
“More than 30,000 metric tons of methyloxolane are already produced today in the world for pharmaceutical synthesis, so there is no technical difficulty to scale the production to one million metric tons,” she concludes.
By Marc Cervera
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