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A handful of startups are trying to reinvent one of the most ubiquitous, but also environmentally destructive, ingredients in our diets: palm oil.

Palm oil is in bread, instant noodles, Girl Scout cookies, lipstick, Nutella and ice cream, to name a few. People around the world use it to cook daily. But to make all of that oil, endless miles of rainforests worldwide — regions along the Equator vital to biodiversity and the fight against climate change — have been flattened and burned and turned into palm oil plantations. That’s had deadly consequences for species like orangutans in Indonesia.

The new companies are taking their tech out of the lab and into real products. The material is made by fermentation (think breweries producing oils rather than beer) and isn’t approved for food yet. But it’s starting to show up in things like cosmetics.

These startups face an uphill fight. The world is so awash in palm oil made the usual way, by growing palm trees, that it’s relatively inexpensive to buy.

Food companies that use palm oil say they are trying to do better and have pledged to create more sustainable supply chains. However, while making a substitute in a lab may be less labor-intensive than razing forests and nurturing millions of trees, to compete on price and volume the startups will need access to huge manufacturing facilities. For now, the startups said, the products they’re selling are still more expensive.

I spoke to leaders of three companies: Thomas Kelleher, chief executive of Xylome, maker of Yoil; Shara Ticku, chief executive and co-founder of C16 Biosciences, which makes Palmless (and counts Bill Gates as an investor); and Chris Chuck, co-founder of U.K.-based Clean Food Group.

Here are their lightly edited answers.

How is your product made?

SHARA TICKU We make an oil that looks and functions just like a palm oil, but we make it from yeast, not from trees. We think of it as bio-designed. It is natural. It’s grown in a lab, only the way beer or wine is grown in a lab.

CHRIS CHUCK We can take food waste, a carbohydrate source, and process it very simply and then feed that to the yeast.

TOM KELLEHER These yeast, if you overfeed them with a lot of sugar, they put on fat. We overfeed them and they swell into a round ball that is almost entirely oil.

What motivated you to start your company?

TICKU I saw what was happening when I was in Singapore about 10 years ago. Smoke from Sumatran forest fires came to Singapore and made the air toxic. To make more palm oil requires totally changing what the planet looks like.

CHUCK Besides deforestation, the population is growing, and we’re not just getting more and more people on the planet, but also we have growing middle-class populations in India and China, which are demanding more wide-ranging, nutritious products.

Will people go for it?

TICKU Component parts of our oil all exist in the human diet today. We have to go through stages of approval with the Food and Drug Administration. And regulatory approval means it’s safe for large-scale consumption.

Besides regulatory approval, what are the other hurdles to selling this?

KELLEHER We need to make at least 100,000 gallons per fermenter, and dozens and dozens of them. There’s a limited number of companies in the world that have that capability. We are actively seeking a strategic partnership with at least one company that is capable of the manufacturing scale and who is already familiar with the palm oil business.

CHUCK We’re talking about very large factories. For us, we can retrofit existing equipment like the kind you find a in brewery. Then you can scale up quickly.

What other uses do you envision for the technology?

KELLEHER I’d like to see us have an alternative for fish oils, for shea butters, and we have a way to do that using the yeast platform we’re working with. We’re already developing a fish oil replacement.

TICKU We’re working with food manufacturers to find out how our oil can make their products better. We can, for example, make alternative cheese better. Our oil can help it melt better.

CHUCK We’re trying to develop a new technology to try to curb the growth of the edible oil sector generally. There are differences between us and the other companies, but it’s not winner takes all. This is this bigger than one company. We have to solve a major, major challenge of the 21st century.

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