Monday, 5 June 2017

Which concerns raise the growing use of palm oil in the food industry?

Why did it become so popular in the food industry?

The use of palm oil in the food industry has grown exponentially. Palm oil’s technical utility comes from its high melting point. Since palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature, it has a variety of uses from baking products and spreads to frying and though animal fats also have this quality, they are far more expensive to produce. The commodity’s cheap production cost stems from the fact that the palm plant essentially offers a two-for-one deal.
Similar to a plum, both the fleshy outer part and inner stone provide usable oil (the latter referred to as palm kernel oil). The components can then be separated for different uses. “Between the [flesh and the stone] the palm plant is about 10 times as productive as a plant like a soya bean or a rapeseed,” Berger says. “In a world that is short of food, having a plant that is as productive as that is a significant benefit.” A perennial crop that takes up just 5% of the farmland used for vegetable oil production, palm oil makes up 38% of the global supply. 

It can be used not only in food but also any soap or cosmetic products that have a fatty component, for example lipstick and shampoo. In these cases, palm oil helps increase the viscosity of the product or acts as an occlusive agent, helping skin to retain its moisture. Although animal fats are still used in some cosmetics, the cost of production is simply too high for widespread use (extract from article on the Guardina "Why does palm oil still dominate the supermarket shelves?" written by Rosie Spinks in 2014).

Major concerns with the spread use of this product are about its environmental sustainability and health issues.

Environmental problems

Palm is a tropical plant and ideal growing conditions are found only on the equator or 10 degrees of latitude north / south. At the same time, these regions house vast areas of tropical rainforest rich in biodiversity on the continents of Asia, Africa and South America. Demand for edible vegetable oils, has grown steady in recent decades and palm oil plantations have expanded rapidly in number and size to meet the global demand causing heavy deforestation.

Indonesia and Malaysia count for 83% of the market share (, and for the high demand, expansion of plantations and production is forecast to continue menacing other portions of rainforest ecosystems.

Indonesia is planning to increase productivity by 40% by 2020 allocating other 5 millions of hectares to the production of this vegetable oil
Industry landscape, regulatory and financial overview,
Despite the implementation of projects to establish environmental sustainable plantations,  the danger to devastate additional hectares of native rainforest is still very high.

Health risks

The image below summarises the palm oil processing stages. The deodorisation of virgin oil, which is part of the refining process at high temperatures, forms the contaminants that are considered toxic.

image source: "Occurrence of 3-monochloropropanediol esters and glycidyl esters in commercial infant formulas in the United States" written by Jessica Leigh & Shaun MacMahon

The European Food Safety Authority, after publishing scientific articles presenting the results of experiments based on lab rats testing, has also recently released the Chemicals in food 2016 report.
One section of the report is centred on the analysis the components resulting from the processing of palm oil described above.
According to the research undertaken by the Authority, current studies have registered low health concerns on the assumption of these components through ingestion of food using this type of vegetable oil.

However, in order to keep to the minimum the risks for health,  the Authority has suggested to the competent commission the importance to establish at regulatory level a maximum level of glycidyl esters of 1.0 mg/kg to be applicable as from September 2017. EU authorities and producers will then discuss the level of contaminants allowed in the food.
This maximum level proposed by EFSA study should be in line with the commitment made by the EU Oil and Protein meal Industry. The commitment was very much welcomed by the Committee and it was acknowledged that it is a strong commitment requiring substantial efforts from the industry.

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