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Dr Jean Graille, a world renowned biotechnology expert who focuses on fats and lipids, completed his studies at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Marseille [National Chemical Engineering Institute of Marseilles]. He began working as a researcher at the Institut des Corps Gras [Institute for Fats and Oils] before continuing his career in the Agribusiness Programme of CIRAD, where he managed the team for ‘Food and Non-Food Substances – Lipid Technology Sciences’. Dr Graille won the Chevreul medal in 1997 and went on to receive the Kaufmann Prize in 1999 – the first French person to do so.

In an interview, he dismantles the myths perpetuated by the anti-palm oil lobby in France, and issues the timely reminder that there is no justification to avoid the use of this important product

What are trans fats? Do these relate to palm oil?

palm-oil-bowlLet us start by reiterating that palm oil does not contain trans fats. In their natural state, these can be found in the fats of ruminants and therefore in milk and dairy products, butter, cream, cheeses, etc. However, they are present in small amounts. They are formed through the partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids in the rumen of cattle by the microbial flora inside this organ.

Trans fats are also found in partially hydrogenated oils – but in significant amounts. Thanks to the use of naturally hydrogenated oils like palm oil – which is entirely trans fats-free – we have been able to develop a wide range of margarines, spreads and cooking fats that do not contain hydrogenated oils.

You wrote a scientific paper entitled ‘Palm oil, another point of view’. Could you give us a brief summary?

The key point in this paper is the observation by biochemists and organic chemists, applying their knowledge of living systems they have studied for more than half a century. Vegetable oils such as palm oil and cocoa butter, which are widely consumed and rich in saturated fatty acids, are not unhealthy under normal consumption conditions.

Oils known as lauric oils, such as palm kernel oils (from the nut of the oil palm fruit) contain 90% saturated fatty acids, 80% of which are short chain fatty acids and they are a special case in terms of digestion. Because of their short chain fatty acids, they cross the intestinal wall very quickly and are transported directly to the liver by the portal vein to make energy. Thus lauric oils have a neutral impact on cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Regarding the myths surrounding palm oil, what are the key points that French consumers need to remember about palm oil and its effects on health?

Consumers need to remember that scientific researchers consider refined palm oil as having a neutral or positive effect on health; its saturated fatty acids are not dangerous; it contains a small amount of compounds such as carotenes, tocopherols and above all tocotrienols that have a powerful protective effect against cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Palm oil is a valuable ingredient for the European food industry because it enables an enormous range of manufacturing processes at a lower cost and at no health risk to the consumer.

In your scientific paper, reference is made to the anti-palm oil lobby and the ridiculousness of the current debate. What is your opinion of the demonisation of palm oil by certain players in the retail sector?

Palm oil has been targeted unfairly in a campaign to demonise it, primarily through activities of the anti-palm oil lobby that can be clearly identified – namely, sunflower and canola for Europe.

In fact, palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil in the world with global production in 2012 reaching 51 million tonnes compared to 41 million tonnes for soybean, canola (23 million tonnes) and sunflower (14 million tonnes). This supremacy in the global market has not pleased producers of competing vegetable oils.

Those in the anti-palm oil lobby know that it is very easy to make false claims on a certain topic and target these claims at uninformed consumers, who quickly assimilate them to become accepted beliefs. Once disseminated, these claims can only be countered and eradicated by a laborious process of education centred on the promotion of scientific facts.

Communication professionals know very well how this works and – in an age where correct and false information can circulate globally in real-time thanks to the Internet, television, and newspapers – it has become extremely easy to reach out and cause alarm among a great number of consumers by providing them with ‘information’ on a particular subject. This is particularly effective when a supposed health-risk is emphasised and associated with the consumption of a particular product.

In the case of the anti-palm oil lobby, the misinformation activities reach their apex when major television channels decide to address a topic like ‘the effect of palm oil on human health and the environment’ and provide a platform for doctors who are self-professed ‘nutritionists’ or to environmentalists who try to educate us on how ‘healthy living’ or how to be responsible citizens.

In France, the success of such communication or misinformation campaigns did not go unnoticed by players in the retail sector who distribute products containing palm oil. Given the significant financial interests at stake, they saw the attacks on palm oil as an opportunity to promote their own range of ‘palm oil-free’ products.

Under the pretext of consumer health, which remains paramount, certain brands took ‘social action’ by declaring that they would no longer offer any products containing palm oil to their customers. In doing so, the brands believed that they had regained their credibility and increased their influence on customers through cheap, opportunistic advertising.

France is famous for having banned genetically-modified agriculture. Do you think that most French consumers know that palm oil does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMO)?

Palm oil has the advantage of not containing GMO. The oil palm has been improved through traditional breeding selection techniques. In Southeast Asia, the palm species Elaeis guineensis, originally from West Africa, has been successfully cultivated. There are extremely high yields per hectare, often exceeding 4 tonnes in certain areas.

To this day, palm oil has never been produced from transgenic crops. On the other hand, soybean, canola and corn oil from both the North and South American continents likely come from transgenic crops.

Why do food producers like palm oil so much?

Palm oil is a key ingredient because it has many desirable qualities. For instance, it is used to give certain foods a specific textures and consistency. In addition, palm oil is popular because it requires limited processing and stands up well against the thermal and oxidative stress that is encountered during cooking and frying; this is due to the fact that it contains few polyunsaturated fatty acids which are very sensitive to heat and oxygen.

Palm oil also gives foods a longer shelf-life as its tocopherols (Vitamin E) and tocotrienols (Vitamin E analogs) protect against thermo-oxidative degradation.

Why do food manufacturers prefer palm oil and its derivatives to hydrogenated oils (soybean and canola)?

Producing goods with palm oil or its derivatives results in products that are more stable without any ‘off’ flavours or unpleasant odours when cooking or reheating; this is not at all the case when shortenings manufactured from liquid oils are used.

In essence, industrial manufacturers prefer palm oil and its derivatives because these provide a broader range of applications at a lower cost – for instance, very specialised stearins are obtained through fractionation of palm oil.

Cocoa butter equivalents (CBE) are produced with thermoplastic characteristics identical to cocoa butter. CBE cost five to 10 times less than cocoa butter and are very important from a technical point of view. The European Union has authorised the use of CBE in cocoa butter by up to 5%.

Excellent 100% CBE chocolate can be found in Malaysia, which is not surprising because the cocoa is what gives the flavour – not the fat, which only provides the ‘melt in the mouth’ sensation due to the properties of cocoa butter or CBE.

What do food manufacturers and retailers need to do in order to prevent the spread of misinformation on fats and oils in France?

Unfortunately, the spread of incorrect information and misinformation is a serious problem. While it is true that it is more complicated to provide information on a formulated food that contains 10 to 20 different ingredients than on a basic product, producers can counter the spread of misinformation by providing scientifically accurate information on their labels.

The Oil Palm, Oct 25, 2015

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