Thursday 23 May 2019

Which popular food products might contain palm oil? Dietitian Orla Walsh tells you

While this common ingredient is, in fact, better for our hearts than trans fats, you have to factor in the human cost, writes dietitian Orla Walsh

Palm oil
Palm oil
Dietitian Orla Walsh

Although many people feel that the research on fat is controversial, it's actually a lot simpler that you think. Research suggests that we should eat a broad range of fats and that we should try and keep them as natural as possible. However, it's important to note that not all fats are created equal. Some are healthier for us than others.

Despite a few differences of opinion, there's one thing most people agree on and that is the evidence accumulated on trans fats. Where trans fats are concerned most people feel less is more.

The general rule of thumb is:

Saturated fats: Solid at room temperature

Dietitian Orla Walsh
Dietitian Orla Walsh

Unsaturated fats: Liquid at room temperature

Monounsaturated fats: Liquid at room temperature but start to solidify at refrigerator temperatures.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids: Liquid at room temperature and in the refrigerator.

Which foods might contain palm oil?

  • Pizzas
  • Frozen battered fish products
  • Instant noodles
  • Pastries
  • Chocolate spread
  • Jellies
  • Peanut butter
  • Frozen roast potatoes and chips
  • Margarine
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Chocolate
  • Chocolate bars
  • Cookies
  • Gravy granules
  • Sliced pan
  • Chewing gum

Palm-oil free versions of these products may be available.

As shown above, oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature. Hydrogenation of oils makes the oil more solid at room temperature. Oils that are turned into more solid fats are sold as 'spreads' as changing them from an oil to a solid makes them more spreadable.

Oils changed to solid fats are often used in the manufacturing of food products. Huge efforts have been made to reduce the production of partially-hydrogenated oils used to make margarines, spreads and therefore the likes of pies, cakes, cookies, fried foods, pastries, pizzas and savoury snacks. This is because partially hydrogenated oils are the primary source of trans fats in the food chain and scientific evidence has connected higher intakes of trans fats with an increased risk of heart disease.

When food companies needed an alternative to partially hydrogenated oils, palm oil was often used as it was naturally low in trans fat as well as being somewhat tasteless and with minimal odour, making it suitable for most food processing.

Similar to butter, palm oil is solid at room temperature because it's a saturated fat. Like most saturated fats, it's not 100pc saturated fat but rather a mixture of all fats. Palm oil has a similar percentage of each of the fats as lard. However, despite having a similar distribution, under a microscope they're quite different with the bonds holding them together being at different points in the fatty chain. This makes a difference to its action once in the body.

It's important to note that saturated fats are simply a category of fat. Although at one time they were all considered to be less healthy, the group of fats that fall under this category is so large that it appears that a blanket assumption such as this is untrue. Each saturated fat is different and each food that supplies the range of saturated fats are unique.

Saturated fat has be linked to heart disease in past research. Therefore a systematic review of the available evidence was conducted in 2014 to assess the impact on substituting palm oil for other dietary fats on markers of heart disease.

Fifty one studies were included which ranged in length from two to 16 weeks. The amount of palm oil used instead of other fats ranged from 4pc to 43pc. The results of all the studies were then pooled and analysed. When palm oil replaced some of the monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats within a diet, levels of total cholesterol, LDL 'bad' cholesterol as well as other blood markers for heart disease increased. This is what was expected as unsaturated fats have been shown, time and time again, to be good for cholesterol levels and heart health.

On the other hand, exchanging palm oil for trans fats showed favourable results. This again is what was expected, as although palm oil doesn't appear to be as good for our health as the unsaturated fats, evidence suggests that it is better for heart health when compared to trans fats.

Therefore when it comes to fat, and other foods, it's important to note that it isn't a case of bad versus good. In fact, what might be more accurate is to consider all foods along a scale of healthy to unhealthy, with the scale being based on one area of health rather than overall health.

In this instance, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats appear to be better for cholesterol and heart health when compared to palm oil, but palm oil is better than trans fats.

The move to demonise certain types of fats is unhelpful and leads to confusion. Palm oil shouldn't be deemed a 'bad fat' or cause someone anxiety because a food contains it. There are some positives to this fat. For instance, palm oil has health benefits due to the abundance of nutrients called carotenoids, tocopherols and tocotrienols that it naturally contains. It also naturally supplies vitamin E, helping to provide food products that are made from it a longer shelf-life.

Thus the move by industry away from trans fat containing partially hydrogenated oils and towards palm oil seems to be a positive move. But is it the best move? A healthy diet is one that weighs the overall footprint of the food a person eats and encompasses the nutritional, environmental and social impacts of the food.

It would wrong to discuss the link between palm oil and health without discussing the human cost and environmental impact of palm oil. There have been many controversies in the palm oil industry which include the exploitation of workers.

This was, in part, brought to the world's attention by Amnesty International. One of their reports on the topic, published in November 2016, discussed not only labour abuses but also the fact that "rapid expansion of palm oil has led to extensive deforestation, destruction of the rainforests and considerable harm to wildlife species''. They reported that palm oil and palm-based ingredients are found in approximately 50pc of supermarket products and that Indonesia accounts for 45pc of the world's palm oil supply. Therefore the detrimental impact of palm oil on the environment and society is centred in this part of the world.

This is a growing issue, as the global demand for palm oil is on the rise. Amnesty International traced palm oil to plantations in Indonesia to nine global companies with combined revenues of more than ¤280bn. Eight of the nine companies are part of the main global body designed to make palm oil "sustainable".

Palm oil, from a nutritional point of view, should not be feared. However, this doesn't mean it's the first choice. For better health, use more oils in cooking and baking. To reduce the bulk of the palm oil you consume, eat fewer processed foods. Like with any food, it's not enough to just look at the health benefits of eating something. We need to look at the bigger picture. Palm oil has a human cost.

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