November 15, 2023

The Montado is an agroforestry system that covers around 3 million hectares on the Iberian Peninsula. Despite the historical record of acorn consumption around 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 authorised 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 tonnes of the average 400,000 tonnes 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 emphasises 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 per cent), protein (up to 10 per cent), unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins (especially A and E) and are suitable for coeliacs (they don't contain gluten). Due to its composition of phenolic compounds (tannins and flavonoids), acorns are also studied for their antioxidant, anticarcinogenic and anti-ageing 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 valorisation of the edible part (crumb) and indirect valorisation of its by-products (shell).

Despite the European Commission recognising holm oak acorns as a safe ingredient for human food, it is still difficult to leverage the key requirements to improve buy-in from 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, jeopardising the native landscape and the presence of endemic species, the fragmentation of actors 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 in order to connect them. By optimising 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, thus promoting acorn-based foods as sustainable and healthy foods on the national and international markets, guaranteeing the environmental, economic and social sustainability of the value chain, and standardising knowledge between the different players, especially universities, knowledge centres 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 Centre (DRAPC) representing the Viseu Innovation Hub, the National Confederation of Agriculture (CNA) and the National Competence Centre for Dried Fruit (CNCFS).

The main objectives of the OakFood project, which began on 1 September 2023 and will last two years, are to develop a network of cork oak, oak and holm oak acorn producers at national level, to study and optimise acorn processing, including analysing its scalability to unlock continuous supply capacity, and to create and test 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 Programme (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.