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Ask the experts: Palm oil

Economically and technically, palm oil is a useful oil in food production – but in using it, is there a greater price to pay? HFG senior nutritionist Rose Carr investigates.

What’s the problem with palm oil, nutritionally?

Palm oil is high in saturated fats. The saturated fat content of palm oil, at around 50 per cent, is high compared to other plant oils — the exception being coconut oil at around 90 per cent. Dairy fat contains around 67 per cent saturated fat and beef fat has about 50 per cent.

The evidence from population, clinical and laboratory studies is consistent in telling us that we reduce our risk of heart disease when saturated fats are replaced with polyunsaturated fats.

Although there is currently not enough evidence to categorically state the same for monounsaturated fats, most population studies and some intervention studies also support the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean diet which is high in monounsaturated fats. Intervention studies have shown that replacing dairy fat or beef fat with plant oils (including palm oil but excluding coconut oil) improves the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol (the most important cholesterol measure.

However, while palm oil is better for us than dairy or beef fat, sunflower, soybean, canola, rice bran and olive oils are considerably better for us than palm oil. So the take home message is still the same: less saturated fat is better for us.

What’s the problem with palm oil, environmentally and ethically?

Palm oil production has been rapidly expanding and this is associated with extensive deforestation and loss of biodiversity. The oil palm is a tropical crop cultivated in lowland areas. Indonesia and Malaysia are the two largest palm oil producers. These countries also have numerous species that are rare or unique to their region, many of which are restricted to forest habitats.

An analysis compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggests that between 1990 and 2005, up to 59 per cent of oil palm expansion in Malaysia, and at least 56 per cent of that in Indonesia occurred at the expense of forests.

Worldwide, the land area under oil palm quadrupled between 1961 and 2007, to 13 million hectares, and demand for palm oil continues to increase.

What food is palm oil in?

Palm oil is ‘everywhere’ in food production although consumer pressure is having some effect on its usage. For example, Cadbury no longer includes palm oil in its Dairy Milk chocolate. Cadbury, Sanitarium and Goodman Fielder all state that the palm oil they do use is from sustainable resources. Good on them for acknowledging their use of palm oil as many manufacturers prefer not to.

How would I know palm oil is in a food if it doesn’t specifically say? How can I avoid it?

Palm oil is sometimes listed in the ingredients, but most often it will simply be listed as ‘vegetable oil’. As palm oil is considerably higher in saturated fat than other vegetable oils, comparing the saturated fat content of similar products may help identify those likely to contain palm oil. If you always choose products with less saturated fat, you are more likely to avoid palm oil, and, whether or not the saturated fat difference is from palm oil, you will be healthier for it.


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