Palm Oil – A Desired Ingredient for European Food Manufacturers to Avoid Dangerous Trans Fats
Palm Oil has seen increasing demand in Europe over the last twenty years. It is needed in food preparation to supplement insufficient local production of oils and fats. Nett imports of oils and fats by the EU amount to 8 to 10 million tonnes per year making up one third of annual consumption and most of these imports are made up of palm oil.
In recent years, the Europeans have been fed with misinformation through negative campaigns by environmental NGOs. Most customers of palm oil are secretly praying that the current controversy over this popular commodity will be resolved soon. They want to continue concentrating on their core business of producing products where palm oil is a desirable component because of its superior techno-economic attributes. They need palm oil to enable them to make profitable and affordable products for the depressed European economy.
Palm oil is also needed to produce healthy products efficiently without containing dangerous trans fats which are produced if locally available oils are used and turned into solid products through the hydrogenation process. Typically, manufacturers in Europe have perfected the interesterification technique where palm oil can be combined with local oils to make margarine, shortening or bakery fats, bypassing the hydrogenation process which produces the undesirable and unhealthy trans fats. Trans fats are the most unhealthy among all fats as they increase the bad LDL cholesterol and reduce the good HDL cholesterol.
Alternative processes in avoiding trans-fats are expensive and also possibly unhealthy. Lard and tallow can be processed for making margarine and shortening but these are animal fats loaded with unhealthy cholesterol and are also in short supply. They are non acceptable to certain users religious-wise. Fish oil used to be a major feedstock for margarine but supply has been affected due to a decline in it’s availability. Furthermore, fish oil when hydrogenated will also produce the unhealthy trans fats. Without palm oil most manufacturing industries will face great difficulty to formulate and produce economical, functional and nutritionally acceptable products, especially in making solid fats like margarine and shortenings .
There may be strong views that locally produced oils will be more desirable for use in the EU market. These oils, namely soyabean, rapeseed and sunflowerseed oils, are often marketed as high in polyunsaturated fatty acids which help lower cholesterol. The problem is that the EU is not self-sufficient in oils and fats, and it has no sources of solid fats other than animal fats like lard and tallow. Furthermore, soya, rapeseed and sunflowerseed oils are liquid, and cannot be used to manufacture solid fat products without adding a solid fat component. This means manufacturers cannot produce solid fat products efficiently without palm oil, and cannot have enough stable frying oils without resorting to using palm oil or partially hydrogenated soft oils. In short, without palm oil many factories have to stop producing margarine, shortenings, confectioneries and fast food products.
The assumption that palm oil is high in saturated fat and could be undesirable is often used by anti palm oil campaigners to suggest putting a limit on palm oil utilization as recently proposed by a couple of Belgium Senators. Such assumptions are not supported by science. Although palm oil has 50 % saturated fatty acids as opposed to 15 % for olive oil, palm oil contains a high amount of monounsaturated fatty acids , similar to olive oil, which gives olive oil its good health image. While the fear of saturated fats is based on their potential in raising dietary cholesterol, palm oil, despite its 50% saturated level does not raise cholesterol as shown in many studies . Instead, it has been shown that a palm oil diet helps reduce cholesterol compared to fats consumed in a western diet. The western dietary fats comprise of mainly animal fats and some soft oils. Subjects on a traditional western diet given food with palm oil, replacing the traditional oils, show lower cholesterol levels at the end of the test period. Additionally, the cholesterol response of palm oil and olive oil diets are similar, indicating again that the level of saturated fats in palm oil are irrelevant when comparing the cholesterol effects.
Denying palm oil from participating in the EU oils and fats market will be totally illogical. Palm oil is cholesterol friendly just like olive oil and its saturated fatty acids level does not affect its cholesterol reducing tendency. It has significant functional advantage to help produce solid fat products such as margarine and shortenings without manufacturers having to resort to unhealthy alternatives such as animal fats or unhealthy trans fats produced from hydrogenating soft oils. Even for industrial frying, where stability at high temperature is important, palm oil is a highly cost effective and stable oil which is favoured by manufacturers because alternatives such as high monounsaturated local oils are in short supply and are expensive.
Due to intimidation and scare tactics by supporters of RSPO certified palm oil, customers are forced to declare that they will convert to using certified sustainable palm oil by a certain target date in the future. This is mainly to avoid further harassment from the ENGOs. Black-mailing is rampant in an attempt by NGOs to force manufacturers to use RSPO certified palm oil.
While RSPO is a good voluntary certification scheme, it’s supporters have gone on to negatively campaign against non RSPO palm oil. False allegations are made to associate palm oil with deforestation, and to instill a negative perception of palm oil in consumers mind . Oil palm was negatively portrayed as a mono-culture crop, not having the same biodiversity as a rainforest (this should actually be compared with biodiversity of other oilseed crops!)despite the fact that oil palm is an agricultural oil seed crop that uses minimal agricultural land compared to temperate oil seed crops.
Other interest groups have jumped on the band wagon to exploit the situation. The French for example are allowing the illegal and unethical “no palm oil” labelling to be used by their retailers such as Casino and System U. There was also an attempt to impose a 300% tax on palm oil recently. France is EU’s largest producer of sunflower and rapeseed oil, and it has not invested in palm oil processing facilities. A lack of stake in the palm oil business may encourage some of its actors to take an anti-palm oil stance. Negative campaigning by NGOs by introducing the fear factor of deforestation has caused some consumer to have a poor perception of palm oil in general. These ENGOs may be overzealous in supporting RSPO certified palm oil by claiming the consequence of deforestation if palm oil expansion is unregulated. The end damage is felt by the small farmers and planters who have been producing food to supplement their income or to provide revenue and employment so that a country like Malaysia which is the second largest producer of palm oil can reduce its food import basket and improve both it’s economy and livelihood of it’s people.
Negative campaigns will have a lose-lose outcome as consumers may avoid palm oil or oils and fats in general. If the “palm oil free” label is allowed as in France, even RSPO certified palm oil cannot be used in products carrying such labels.
It is also observed that Senators are being influenced by the anti-palm oil campaigners to propose anti-palm oil legislations as observed in France, Belgium and Switzerland. These Senators have not been aware of the full facts on the role of palm oil in the food manufacturing industry. Neither are they aware of the true nutritional value of palm oil or the fact that oil palm uses the least land area to produce the most amount of oil for the world market, relative to other major oils. All past legislative proposals introduced by ill- informed senators have not been given much attention by the relevant governments, such as the US, Australia and France. Limiting market access for palm oil without scientific justification will be against the provisions of WTO which encourages free trade. There is also no country that has banned the use of palm oil because the oil is approved for use in food by WHO, FAO and CODEX. It is unlikely that green NGOs or a few wayward Senators can dismantle or reverse the years of assessment and approval by international bodies such as FAO, WHO and CODEX, and instead recommend limiting the consumption of palm oil, without giving any solid evidence or justification that is based on research studies on palm oil nutrition.
If Europe and European manufactures are truly concerned about the health of consumers, they should seriously consider banning trans fat and accept the fact that palm oil is not the problem but the solution to producing healthy trans free products .