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OakFood, the project that aims to (re)valorize Portuguese acorns

Portugal is an exceptional producer of acorns, mainly due to its extensive Montado that runs through the country from north to south. It is estimated that trees of the Quercus genus represent around 36% of the entire national forest, followed by the Eucalyptus genus, which occupies 26%.

The Montado is an agroforestry system that covers around 3 million hectares on the Iberian Peninsula. Despite the historical record of acorn consumption throughout the world, and in the case of Portugal with contemporary records of traditional consumption in some regions, only the acorn of the holm oak (Quercus rotundifolia) is listed as a food authorized for human consumption by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

For decades, acorns have been used mainly as animal feed in Portugal, with the majority of its commercial use (more than 83,000 tons of the average total of 400,000 tons produced annually) being for fattening livestock species. However, acorns have enormous potential for integration into the Mediterranean Diet since the main market trends have leveraged the search for new solutions to increase the market share associated with the consumption of Portuguese agri-food products, in particular the use of raw materials that are little exploited in human food, promoting the circular economy.

Data provided by the Portuguese Catholic University in 2015 indicates that the acorn sector in Portugal had a value of approximately €6.3 million, with pig farming and feeding having the most significant weight. The lack of recent data on acorn production, processing and use emphasizes the need for an exhaustive survey of producers, processors, and possible products to be developed based on acorns.

Acorns are a nutritionally rich food, containing a high level of carbohydrates (around 86%), protein (up to 10%), unsaturated fatty acids, and vitamins (especially A and E) and are suitable for celiacs (they don't contain gluten). Due to their composition of phenolic compounds (tannins and flavonoids), acorns are also studied for their antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and anti-aging potential. Due to these characteristics, acorn flour is an interesting substitute for wheat flour in the formulation of various products, such as bread, giving rise to innovative products of national origin through the direct valorization of the edible part (crumb) and indirect valorization of its by-products (shell).

Despite the European Commission recognizing holm oak acorns as a safe ingredient for human food, it is still difficult to leverage the key requirements to improve the uptake of agricultural entrepreneurs, municipalities, and the availability of land for this crop, as well as the general population's perception of acorns, which end up being largely wasted, with less than 1% being used for processing and the production of flour for commercial purposes. Currently, the use of acorns as a raw material is dependent on various factors, such as production being susceptible to seasonality and harvests, the felling of native forest (essentially oak and holm oak) and replacement by invasive species, compromising the native landscape and the presence of endemic species, the fragmentation of the players in the acorn value chain, the lack of information for the economic and business community to be able to invest more in the sector, the lack of short marketing circuits and support networks, and the lack of forest management and effective harvesting methods to reduce the cost of the raw material.

According to the gaps in the sector, there are clear opportunities to map the distribution of acorn-producing groves, as well as the actors in the value chain, and develop a network of contacts to connect them. By optimizing the processing of acorns into food ingredients at industrially relevant scales, it will also be possible to develop new innovative foods that incorporate acorn-derived ingredients and are accepted by the consumer, and thus promote acorn-based foods as sustainable and healthy foods on the national and international markets, guarantee the environmental, economic and social sustainability of the value chain, and standardize knowledge between the different players, especially universities, knowledge centers, and companies.

The OakFood project aims to develop an integrated strategy for the viability of acorns as a raw material for the development of value-added products as sustainable, short-chain alternatives for the food industry. The consortium, led by Food4Sustainability CoLAB, has the participation of 7 SMEs (Landratech, Arcadia International, Equanto, Pepe Aromas, Javalimágico and AgroGrIN Tech and Purenut), as well as the Portuguese Catholic University of Porto, the Regional Directorate of Agriculture and Fisheries of the Center (DRAPC) representing the Viseu Innovation Hub, the National Confederation of Agriculture (CNA) and the National Center of Competence for Dried Fruits (CNCFS).

The main objectives of the OakFood project, which began on September 1, 2023, and will run for two years, are the development of a network of cork oak, oak, and holm oak acorn producers at the national level, the study and optimization of acorn processing, including analysis of its scalability to unlock continuous supply capacity, and the creation and testing of new innovative foods. A marketing and communication strategy will be created, focused on emerging national and international markets, underpinned by an assessment of the social and economic impact and carbon footprint of the value chain under construction.

This is a research and innovation project funded under the Recovery and Resilience Program (PRR) - Investment RE-C05-i03 - Research and innovation agenda for the sustainability of agriculture, food, and agro-industry, Notice no. 15/C05-i03/2021 R&D+i Projects - Promotion of Portuguese agri-food products, supported by the budget of the Portuguese Recovery and Resilience Plan and the NextGenerationEU European Funds.

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