Palm oil: Do we need a 'Nutella' tax?
Palm oil isn't as healthy than other oils.
True. One of the main arguments for the ‘Nutella’ tax is that it sends a message “not to the consumer, but to the food production industry: to use other, more environmentally friendly fats as a substitute.” The saturated fat content of palm oil is relatively high, at between 44% and 55% compared with an average of 15% in other oils. Rapeseed oil contains 2-8% saturated fat, and olive oil contains 9-26%. Palm oil increases the levels of bad cholesterol in your body and only slightly increases the body’s ‘good’ cholesterol, known as HDL. It’s also comparatively low in polyunsaturated fatty acids (‘good’ fats) such as omega 3 and 6, containing just 9-12% compared with 26-32% for rapeseed oil.
Palm oil contains ‘bad’ fats.
True. The fatty acids contained in palm oil are hypocholesterolemic because of their molecular structure. These saturated fatty acids, or ‘bad fats’, are made up of long chains and are mostly found in meat products. Not all meats and animal products are high in saturated fatty acids. (They also contain essential nutrients like iron and minerals.) But you should still watch your intake. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends not eating more than 300g of red meat a week.
Saturated fat in dairy products is recognised as being less harmful than fatty acids found in other foods. Saturated fatty acids in dairy products have short chains, which means the hypocholesterolemic effect is reduced.
Palm oil is hidden in many different products.
True. According to the WWF(1), the UK is the third largest importer of palm oil in Europe. Just over half of the UK’s palm oil imports go into products destined for end consumers: margarine, bakery, chocolate, ice cream, peanut butter and soap. It’s also used in industry and animal feed. A small percentage of palm oil is used in biodiesel(2).
Palm oil is used because it’s cheap.
Partly true. Palm oil is widely used because it stays solid at a constant temperature. It gets this property from saturated fatty acids. “The texture of food (viscous, crunchy or flaky) is largely down to the fat content,” explains Professor Bernard Guy-Grand of the French Fund for Food and Health (FFAS)*. “Palm oil is useful because its saturated fatty acids are resistant to oxidation and to thermal production methods, and because it doesn’t go off.” The low cost makes this product more attractive to food manufacturers, but its properties also make it a good option for products like cooking oil.
We consume too much palm oil
No, but we are getting more and more of it. Consumption of palm oil in the UK is predicted to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, according to Greenpeace(3). It’s true, however, that most Brits eat too much saturated fat in general. It’s estimated that the average person eats 20% more than the recommended daily intake(4). The guideline amounts are 30g a day for men and 20g for women. These figures are approximate, and consumption of palm oil is greatly dependent on individual lifestyle and diet. If you eat a lot of processed food, your diet is likely to be high in saturated fat. “It’s excess that causes the problem. It’s hard to prove any kind of link between moderate consumption and an increased risk of getting heart disease,” Professor Guy-Grand says. “But that’s no reason to put palm oil in everything.”
Palm oil is dangerous to health
Partly true. The saturated fat content of palm oil is blamed for an increase in the risk of heart disease. However, according to Professor Guy-Grand: “Although palm oil contains unhealthy (saturated) fats, there’s no specific danger associated with it when consumed in moderation. You should simply limit your intake of palm oil and animal fats, which are also very high in saturated fatty acids.”
Palm oil can’t be replaced with other types of oil
Partly true. “Essentially, palm oil is used as a substitute for hydrogenated fat, which is high in trans fatty acids. This type of fat is known to have harmful effects on cardiovascular health,” Professor Guy-Grand explains.
Hydrogenation is a method of turning liquid fat solid at the right atmospheric temperature. There are two other methods used (fractionation and interesterification), but the finished product still has the same amount of saturated fatty acids. In a recent study, the FFAS established that it is “theoretically possible to produce a ‘solid fat’ that’s stable by choosing the right raw materials (...). The combination of different processes (hydrogenation, fractionation and interesterification) allows manufacturers to limit the amount of trans fatty acids contained in the finished product.” (5)
According to our expert, it is possible to replace palm oil, “depending on the manufacturing process, taking heat resistance into account, for example. In some cases, palm oil must still be used as a last resort where no other oil will do the same job.”
Palm oil isn’t listed on food labels
True. Most of the time, palm oil isn’t shown on the list of ingredients on food products. You only get a general indication of fat content. Food manufacturers aren’t required by law to indicate the amount of palm oil contained in food, but this could change in the future. It could become obligatory to list the origins of the different types of oil in cases where vegetables oils are mixed, and in December 2016, manufacturers may even be required to give nutritional information including the nature of the fatty acids and saturated fat, as well as the type of hydrogenation (partial or total). However, the percentage of fatty acids won’t be indicated.
Palm oil production increases deforestation in South East Asia
Partly true. The area used for oil palms is currently estimated at 13 million hectares, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. These countries are also the principle consumers of palm oil (along with India and Thailand). “In these countries, palm oil makes up a large part of food consumption and helps to reduce the risks of malnutrition,” Professor Guy-Grand explains.
In response to the world’s growing demand for fat, tropical countries like those in South East Asia have used more and more of their land for oil palms. The low production costs and relatively high yield mean the industry has flourished. Oil palms are mainly cultivated by agricultural companies, but family producers also exist.
Between 1990 and 2005, Indonesia and Malaysia suffered 14% deforestation. This figure has now reached 20%. Of the areas of deforestation, only 16% was used for oil palms. “The arguments against using palm oil to prevent deforestation are therefore not supported,” says Professor Guy-Grand.
There is no official certification system for palm oil
True. However, following an initiative led by key players in the palm oil industry, a system of certification to promote sustainable palm oil production has been developed. It’s based on eight key principles and 39 different criteria. The body behind these regulations, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), was established in 2008 with the aim of growing the number of environmentally conscious oil palm plantations and conserving biodiversity while respecting local communities. The body also aims to implement regulations with regards to the acquisition of land.
In conclusion, Professor Guy-Grand says that there is a need for “the use of palm oil in food to be optimised in terms of technology and industry standards,” adding that “there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to getting producers to respect the existing standards for sustainability.”
*The French Fund for Food and Health (FFAS) is a new federation whose objective is to study and promote food as a source of pleasure and good health. It is a collaborative effort between scientists and the food industry.
1 - www.wwf.org.uk
2 - Mapping and understanding the UK palm oil supply chain: A research report by Proforest for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, April 2011 Available online
3 - www.greenpeace.org.uk
4 - www.nhs.uk
5 - L'huile de palme : aspects nutritionnels, sociaux et environnementaux (Palm oil: nutritional, social and environmental impacts), A report for the French Fund for Food and Health, Report and press release, 22 November 2012