Is palm oil bad for your health?

During recent weeks, the media spotlight has been focusing on an ingredient that exists in a large number of food products and usually in the diet of many European households: palm oil. The alarm has been raised as a result of various social media consumer movements and a number of politicians, all calling for the immediate removal of this product from supermarket shelves on the grounds of it being harmful to health. But what lies behind all of this? Is this alarm justified?

Palm oil comes from a palm tree widely grown in certain areas of Southeast Asia and Africa. Once processed, it is mainly used as a biofuel and in the food industry in the form of butter or fat. Its main features and, therefore, its widespread use, are the highly neutral way it improves flavor in food and gives a certain oily texture which enhances the consumption of products that include it as an ingredient. It is also a very stable oil that does not decompose during the cooking process, and is affordable. It is widely used in the food industry and palm oil can usually be found on the labels of many products such as crisps, biscuits, cakes, ready-made meals, sauces, soups, creams, pastry, pizza or snack foods. It is important that we point this out, as palm oil, along with all other ingredients of any product, is always mentioned on labels for consumers.

Public opinion has turned its attention to this ingredient, given the questions raised about its composition. This is an oil with 50% saturated fat and, as is the case with many other ingredients, its excessive consumption increases cholesterol levels and can lead to cardiovascular problems. A quick comparison with other vegetable or animal oils shows that saturated fat levels of this oil are not particularly significant. Coconut oil has over 90%, butter 65% and cocoa butter 60%. So why these doubts now regarding palm oil and not the others? The only thing that seems to be clear so far is that the problem, like most things, lies in knowing the difference between health and nutrition. As has happened before with other food staples, excess consumption, an unbalanced diet and lack of exercise could be the causes of health problems.

Another aspect worth highlighting is its proper use. A few months ago, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) reported that refining palm oil at temperatures above 200 degrees could transform it into a carcinogenic ingredient. In no case has this authority recommended stopping the use of palm oil immediately and has informed that it will be carrying out further studies involving a closer analysis of this controversial issue. For its part, the industry and manufacturers that include this component in some of their products have rushed to report that there has been no misuse of this oil and that it is always refined in the proper manner.

Therefore, to date, there is no evidence to suggest that palm oil is detrimental to health. As is often the case, the problem lies in its excess consumption. But this does not mean that the consumption of palm oil does not imply other drawbacks.

Deforestation

The main problem that lurks behind the general and worldwide consumption of palm oil is the deforestation of the regions in which it is produced. Due to an ever-increasing demand, some countries have already raised the alarm regarding deforestation and uncontrolled production, which is leading to the disappearance of innumerable hectares of tropical rainforest. Large fires are frequently started, presumably in collusion with local governments, for the subsequent planting of these palm trees.

This is why it is becoming increasingly common to find more manufacturers and distributors who are committed to the sustainability of this product and its quality. In DIA’s case, in which this ingredient is included in some of the company’s own-brand products, two lines of action are being followed to ensure a responsible use of palm oil.

On the one hand, by avoiding the use of palm oil, palm seed oil and its by-products, replacing them whenever possible with another type of oil and informing the suppliers who manufacture their proprietary brands; and, on the other hand, using only palm oil with a sustainability certificate, if its replacement is not suitable or relevant in accordance with organoleptic, technological and environmental aspects.

However, above all, we must not forget that DIA’s customers need to adjust supply according to their needs.