Palm Oil: The New Fat Under Fire

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By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Feb. 9, 2017 -- As artery-clogging trans fats continue to disappear from foods, one of the fats replacing it is coming under fire: palm oil.

Palm oil is found in many foods, including margarines and spreads like Nutella, peanut butter (Jif, Smart Balance and others), and baked goods, including Girl Scout Cookies and Dunkin' Donuts.

A European safety agency has said that substances produced when palm oil is processed at high temperatures may cause cancer, based on animal studies. Experts already know palm oil is not the healthiest oil for your heart, and environmentalists have long warned that the rising demand for palm oil is jeopardizing the world's rainforests and endangering some animals.

Nutella's maker, Ferrero, is fighting back with an advertising campaign saying that its palm oil spread can be part of a healthy diet. Like other companies, it says it is using the oil in a safe way while working to minimize deforestation.

Palm oil comes from the palm tree fruit and is one of the few vegetable oils high in saturated fat, says Alice Lichtenstein, a senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center.

A 2015 FDA rule requires food manufacturers to eliminate trans fats in 3 years. As trans fats are being phased out of foods, the demand for palm oil has modestly increased, says Robert Collette, president of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, an industry group. It gives texture and volume to baked goods and is also used in margarines and spreads, frostings, icings, and candies.

Palm Oil and Cancer Risk

In May, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) singled out palm oil as something that may cause cancer, based on studies in mice and rats, although it said the risk to humans "remains uncertain."

The agency studied harmful substances that form during food processing when vegetable oils are heated to temperatures of 392 F or higher. The highest levels of these substances, known as glycidyl fatty acid esters, or GEs, are in palm oils and palm fat, followed by other oils and fats, according to the EFSA. Margarines, pastries, and cakes are the main exposure sources for anyone over age 3.

The agency's panel concluded that average exposures are a concern for younger age groups, and high exposures are a concern for all age groups. The report does not include recommendations for "safe" levels. However, the panel concluded that an infant receiving only formula (which can contain palm oil) would be below the level of concern. The panel also said levels of the harmful substances in palm oils and fats fell by half between 2010 and 2015, due to voluntary measures by producers to improve processing techniques.

Ferrero has said it processes its palm oil at temperatures below 392 F and with low pressure to minimize the harmful substances.

Palm Oil and Heart Health

Palm oil is not the first choice for heart health, because it is high in saturated fat, Lichtenstein says. "For heart health, we recommend people use the fats higher in polyunsaturated and low in saturated -- ones like soybean and corn. If someone is going to use [palm oil] to prepare a favorite dish, or eat a food prepared with palm oil, it should be limited to special occasions," she says.

In one study, palm oil and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, compared with regular soybean and canola oil, drove up levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol in those who already had slightly abnormal cholesterol levels.

In another analysis, researchers concluded that eating palm oil leads to higher LDL cholesterol than eating vegetable oils low in saturated fats. It recommended cutting palm oil use in favor of vegetable oils low in saturated and trans fats. But many food makers using palm oil cite moderation and a long history of its use.

Nutella's website notes, "palm oil has been used in human nutrition for thousands of years." The company says that it uses "mild heat treatments" to minimize harmful substances and that Nutella "is already in line with the new thresholds recommended by EFSA."

Girl Scouts USA says on its site, "our licensed bakers are committed to using as little palm oil as possible in Girl Scout Cookies and have committed to continuing to research viable alternatives."

Palm Oil and the Environment

Palm oil isn't just a health issue; its production is also destroying global forests and pushing animals out of native habitats, says Sharon Smith, campaign manager of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"The main environmental concerns are tropical deforestation, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 85 to 95% of the world's palm oil is produced," she says. "We can't tackle reducing the impact of global climate change if we don't tackle deforestation."

Industry Views

Members of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils take both health and environmental concerns seriously, Collette says. Those who supply palm oil have all publicly posted on their company websites their pledges about the oil and commitments on deforestation, he says.

Members that process palm oil have also joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, he says. The objective "is to promote the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products" through credible global standards and engaging all who have a stake in it. Girl Scouts USA says it's also a member of the roundtable.

They are also trying to understand how to lessen the harmful substances made when processing palm oil.

SOURCES: European Food Safety Authority statement: "Process contaminants in vegetable oils and foods." Alice Lichtenstein, senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center, Boston. Sharon Smith, spokeswoman, Union of Concerned Scientists. Robert Collette, president, Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils. Christopher J. Herrera, spokesman, Rainforest Action Network. Nutella.com. Girlscouts.org. Journal of Nutrition: "Palm Oil Consumption Increases LDL Cholesterol Compared with Vegetable Oils Low In Saturated Fat in a Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Palm and partially hydrogenated soybean oils adversely alter lipoprotein profiles compared with soybean and canola oils in moderately hyperlipidemic subjects."

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