[CAIRO] Middle Eastern countries could cut their cooking oil imports while making use of desert land with Cyperus esculentus plants, according to an Egyptian researcher.
The region imports most of its olive oil but, by harvesting the sturdy indigenous plant, it could save money and keep the olive oil processing industry going — even off-season.
The study found that Cyperus plants — already grown in Egypt for their edible seeds, and mentioned in the scientific literature as a potential source of biofuels — taste and smell similar to olive oil, which could make them an ideal substitute.
More than two-thirds of Cyperus oil is oleic acid, which makes it less likely to break down and more durable, according to a PhD study conducted at El Minia University and approved last month (December 2010). This is similar to olive oil's content.
To check if Cyperus oil tastes and smells like olive oil, Arij Salama, the study's author, tested it with 200 olive oil consumers, who said that the two kinds of oil are almost the same.
"Cyperus seeds contain up to 23 per cent of oil. Cyperus can be planted in deserts, as it does not need clay soil or fertilisers. It also tolerates the salinity of the land and the lack of water," said Ahmed Khorshied, food industry expert and a researcher at the Food Technology Research Institute in Cairo. "Cyperus produces between 1.8 and 3 tonnes of seeds per hectare," he added.
Another advantage of Cyperus, said Khorshied, is that oil can be easily extracted from the plant using the same method as for olive oil.
"Olive oil extraction industries work only during the olive harvesting season, because olives are not a harvest that can be stored, so these industries could extract Cyperus oil in other seasons."
Khorshied said some countries already use Cyperus oil as a biofuel but in the Arab countries it could be used to bridge the gap in cooking oil supply.
Noumany Nasr, vice president of the Egyptian General Authority for Supply Commodities, said that the authority will explore these findings, but added that "making the study recommendations applicable will take a long time", as Egyptian consumers do not easily get used to new and different food products.
Ahmed Amri, regional coordinator of the dryland agrobiodiversity programme for the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas said the study "deserves more research which could be conducted easily within any biochemical laboratory".