Nutella® is not the only product to contain palm oil. It is also found in pastries, biscuits, bakery products and you might be surprised to know it is found in shampoos, soaps, moisturisers, and even in hydrocarbons! It is thanks, or should I say because, of its great diversity of use that palm oil has recently become the most used vegetable oil in the world.
Yet it is accused of being responsible for significant deforestation and contributing to the disappearance of many species such as Orang-utans. Palm oil attracts controversy and a lot of anger. It is even accused of being dangerous to your health.
So what position should we take on this oil? Why would a vegetable oil cause so much debate? Let’s have a look.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the fruit pulp of oil palms. It needs to be differentiated from palm kernel oil which is extracted from the kernels of the fruit found on oil palm.
How did it end up as a food product?
If I told you that it was actually butter that brought palm oil into our diet, would you believe me? Well, it’s true!
A few years ago, butter was also a controversial food product. High in saturated fatty acids it has long been labelled an unhealthy food. Moreover, it is expensive and needs to to be manufactured, transported and stored in special conditions. It was these factors that led the food industry to look for an alternative to butter. They needed to find a fat that was beneficial to our health, with good press and with properties equivalent to butter. And all that, with a price tag lower than butter’s.
And bingo! Palm oil fit the bill! Its production costs are low, it can be transported without a refrigerated truck and its make-up of fatty acids means that it can be solid at room temperature and liquid at high temperature, just like butter. The dream for the all food industrialists.
And on the nutritional side?
The only downside is that palm oil is red and not strong enough to give the products the same texture and colour as butter. Let’s be honest, a red bun creates suspicions about its nutritional quality?
The industrialists realise this and that’s why the oil is refined. Refining means removing its colour and therefore the many carotenoids (powerful orange-coloured antioxidants) naturally contained in palm oil. They also use hydrogenation, a process by which liquid oil becomes solid by bombarding it with hydrogen atoms. This process changes the structure of fatty acids which leads to the formation of trans fatty acids, fats known for their carcinogenic potential and their risks to cardiovascular health.
Here is what makes doctored palm oil harmful to health. In the natural state, palm oil presents no known risk to health at all.
What gives it its particular texture is its fatty acid composition. It is the only fat composed of 50% saturated fatty acids, present in animal fats (even if it is a source of vegetable oil, making it quite unique) and 50% unsaturated fatty acids, present in vegetable oils.
Palm oil is therefore half made up of “good fats” and half made up of “bad fats“, so its composition is not that bad in the end. On the contrary, it is very rich in vitamin A (beta-carotene) and vitamin E, essential antioxidants for the proper functioning of the body.
If it were not refined, palm oil, like many other products, could be much more beneficial to health … and let’s not forget that more than half of the planet uses it as it is, especially in Asia.
Know how to choose your products,
If you want to pay attention to your consumption of processed palm oil, you must first know how to find it. In the ingredient lists below, it is hidden under different names.
The most obvious ones are:
- Palm oil
- Palm kernel oil
- Partially hydrated palm oil
- Organic palm oil
- Palm kernel fat
- Palm olein
- Palm stearin
And for the less obvious ones:
- Vegetable oil
- Vegetable fat
- Hydrogenated vegetable oil
- Mono stearate
It should be pointed out that for the latter names, they are not necessarily palm oil, these names are very vague and can be used for other vegetable oils such as rapeseed oil, sunflower and other liquid oils. I always pay particular attention to the denomination “hydrogenated vegetable oil” and “hydrogenated vegetable fats”. As described above, the hydrogenation makes it possible to make an oil solid, but this process can be carried out on any type of vegetable oil. So what do i mean? With the exception of palm oil and coconut oil, vegetable oils are exclusively liquid. This implies that to achieve the same result as palm oil, food manufacturers would have to hydrogenate the oil, once, twice, three times… So the quantities of trans fatty acids are multiplied. So in my opinion, if we ignore the environmental side and just focus on the nutritional side, it is probably better to choose a product containing the name “without hydrogenated palm oil”, rather than a product containing the words “hydrogenated vegetable oil” and “hydrogenated vegetable fats”.
- Marangoni, F., Galli, C., Ghiselli, A., Lercker, G., La Vecchia, C., Maffeis, C., … & Giacco, R. (2017). Palm oil and human health. Meeting report of NFI: Nutrition Foundation of Italy symposium. International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition, 68 (6), 643-655
- de NM Roos, ML Bots, Katan MB. Replacement of dietary saturated fatty acids by trans fatty acids lowers serum HDL cholesterol and impairsendothelial function in healthy men and women. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2001 Jul; 21 (7): 1233-7.
- Canadian Government, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Oils, Fatty Acids and Fats: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/setting/decisions/grass-and-generic-acids/ fra / 1348149106659/1348149198158)
- French Fund Food and Health, Palm Oil: Nutritional, Social and Environmental Aspects, November 2012.
- Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, et al. Dietary saturated fats and their food sources in relation to the risk of coronary heart disease in women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999; 70 (6): 1001-8.
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