July 2014 Issue

Substituting Palm Oil for Trans Fat
By Beth Anne Conlon, MS, RDN, and Ashley M. Colpaart, MS, RDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 16 No. 7 P. 20

The FDA’s proposal to ban trans fat has increased demand for palm oil, but is palm oil a good alternative for human health and the environment?

In November 2013, the FDA gave public health professionals a reason to celebrate by publishing a formal Federal Register notice proposing a ban on partially hydrogenated oils on the grounds that they’re no longer generally recognized as safe for use in food.

For decades, efforts have been made to reduce or eliminate the use and intake of partially hydrogenated oils, which are found in commonly eaten foods such as margarines and spreads, baked goods, fried foods, frozen pies and pizzas, and savory snacks. This is because partially hydrogenated oils are the primary source of trans fatty acids in the food supply, and trans fatty acid intake poses a risk of cardiovascular disease.

In response to a 2006 FDA ruling mandating the labeling of trans fatty acids on the Nutrition Facts label, food manufacturers began eliminating trans fats from their products. Due to the unique properties of partially hydrogenated oils, companies began substituting them with palm oil, a naturally trans fat–free oil, increasing imports to the United States by nearly 60% over the past seven years. An FDA ban on the commercial use of trans fats likely will increase the demand, but palm oil’s high saturated fat content and the destruction of tropical forests, where palm plantations are planted, are raising red flags for public health and environmental groups.

It’s important for RDs to educate themselves on the impact of palm oil consumption and cultivation so they can work with key stakeholders—food manufacturers, environmental organizations, and consumers—to advocate for and develop innovative solutions to strike a balance between what’s best for the public’s health and what’s best for the environment.

This article will review the history of the use of partially hydrogenated oils in the food supply and their health effects, discuss the environmental impact of increased palm oil production, and highlight opportunities for RDs to take action and raise awareness about palm oil and the broader implications of the foods consumers eat.

History and Regulation
Food manufacturers are adept at responding to changing health and consumer trends, manufacturing and labeling regulations, and foreign and domestic commodity trade pressures. In 1968, the American Heart Association (AHA) presented the first quantitative dietary recommendations affirming that Americans should consume 30% to 35% of calories from fat (later to be reduced to less than 30%), less than 10% of calories from saturated fat, and less than 300 mg/day of cholesterol. These recommendations were based on the hypothesis that excessive dietary fat intake raises cholesterol levels, thus increasing the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Consequently, growing consumer fear of fat prompted food manufacturers to reformulate products to be marketed with more diet-friendly descriptors such as “low-fat” or “fat-free.”

While fat phobia was sweeping the nation throughout the 1970s, palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and was widely used in commercial foods at the time, was in direct competition with US subsidized crops such as soybean, corn, and cottonseed oils, which were lower in saturated fat (about 16% saturated fat). In response, an antitropical oil campaign was launched, alerting the public to the dangers of highly saturated fat products and urging American food companies to remove palm and coconut oils (also high in saturated fat) from their products.1

The highly subsidized cost of and easy access to commodity seed oil led companies to announce they would switch to vegetable oils containing unsaturated fats. But palm oil is odorless, tasteless, and solid at room temperature, making it ideal for enhancing the texture, mouthfeel, and shelf life of commercial food products.2

To obtain the same unique properties palm oil offers, the food industry employed the novel process of hydrogenation, which adds hydrogen atoms to oils, converting unsaturated oils, once liquid at room temperature, into hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, now solid or semisolid, respectively, at room temperature. Consequently, during the hydrogenation process, some of the cis (crooked) double bonds break and randomly reorganize into trans (straight) double bonds, introducing artificial trans fat bonds into the oil.2

Partially hydrogenated oils contain more artificial trans fats than fully hydrogenated oils because their carbon atoms aren’t fully saturated, leaving room for trans double bond formation. Both partially and fully hydrogenated oils are highly customizable for a variety of manufacturing applications, including frying and baking.1

Health Consequences Emerge
Originally, consumer advocacy groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit organization that advocates for issues such as consumer health, nutrition, and food safety, praised food manufacturers for switching from saturated fats to partially hydrogenated oils.1 Before the advent of hydrogenation, the only trans fatty acids humans consumed came from the natural sources: meat and dairy.

The industrywide adoption of partially hydrogenated oils in cakes, cookies, pies, and pastries contributed to dramatic increases in intake, making partially hydrogenated oils the primary dietary source of industrially produced trans fatty acids. Research emerged in the 1990s connecting higher intakes of trans fats with an increased risk of CHD, the No. 1 killer of Americans. Mechanistically, trans fats fuel the increase of LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, promoting coronary artery calcification.

Cumulative evidence guided the AHA’s decision to recommend that individuals limit their intake of trans fat to less than 1% of total daily calories as part of a healthful lifestyle to encourage cardiovascular health2 and led to an FDA ruling in 2006 mandating the labeling of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label. But a loophole allowing products containing fewer than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving to be labeled as 0 g left a low level of trans fat in foods. Consuming several servings of products containing almost 0.5 g of trans fat will exceed the daily limits the AHA recommended.3

If the FDA’s trans fat ban is finalized, food manufacturers will no longer be permitted to sell or use partially hydrogenated oils in food products without FDA approval for use as a food additive and will again be in search of a suitable replacement. According to the public comment submitted by the Institute for Shortening and Edible Oils, a nonprofit trade association representing the refiners of edible fats and oils in the United States, “The industry believes palm oil and its fractions will likely be the initial replacement ingredient of choice for many PHOs [partially hydrogenated oils] in applications requiring functional characteristics from the shortening.” Further, “The global supplies of palm oil are sufficient to handle the expected increase in demand that would result from the total elimination of PHOs.”

“Baked goods and certain other products require a hard fat—one with a high melting point—in their preparation, so another hard fat must be used to replace partially hydrogenated oils,” explains Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, cofounder and executive director of the CSPI. “Butter or lard would usually work, but palm oil is cheaper and is of plant origin. All are less harmful to health than partially hydrogenated oil high in trans fat.”

But is swapping partially hydrogenated oils for palm oil a fair trade? “The use of palm oil is not without unintended consequences,” says Judith Wylie-Rosett, EdD, RD, a professor in the department of epidemiology and population health and the Atran Foundation chair in social medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. “Palm oil contains a high proportion of saturated fat, which we know also has adverse health effects.”

Saturated fats, similar to trans fats, raise LDL cholesterol but are safer to consume at higher quantities than trans fats. The AHA and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend keeping saturated fat intake at less than 7% and at 10% of energy intake, respectively.2,4 A threshold effect of lower intakes of trans fat, which includes naturally occurring trans fatty acids, hasn’t yet been established.5

It’s possible that establishing a tolerable lower limit of trans fatty acids in foods would be less deleterious on health than increasing the saturated fat content. “We need to weight the options very carefully,” Wylie-Rosett says. “We should examine the history of saturated fats and consider their health effects. We can’t just assume that palm oil is the better replacement because it’s a natural source. Natural doesn’t necessarily equate to healthy.”

Environmental Concern
According to Jacobson, “Palm oil suffers from at least two problems: It boosts cholesterol levels, and most palm oil is imported from Malaysia or Indonesia, where the expansion of oil palm plantations has devastated the environment.”

Palm oil is derived from the fruit, seed, or kernel of oil palm trees, which are native to Africa but grown in the tropics of Southeast Asia. Indonesia and Malaysia are the leading exporters of palm oil.6

“The large-scale and mostly [more than 90%] unsustainable production of palm oil is causing unprecedented rates of deforestation, wildlife depletion, greenhouse gas emissions, and human conflicts in affected areas,” says Ashley Schaeffer Yildiz, palm oil campaigner for the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). Indonesia was once home to 170 million hectares (1 hectare is approximately 2.5 acres) of biologically diverse rainforests, and today only approximately one-half remain—which is the size of Texas and Florida combined. According to RAN, 18 million more hectares of rainforests will be converted into palm oil plantations by 2020.7 Nearly 75% of global palm oil is used in food products and cooking, making palm oil one of the largest food environment issues today.

The islands of Borneo and Sumatra are at the height of the palm oil debate. These highly desirable areas contain rich, low-lying forests and wetlands that provide ideal conditions for the oil palm trees to grow. However, these also are the only remaining places on earth where tigers, rhinoceroses, orangutans, elephants, leopards, and other wildlife coexist. Many environmental awareness campaigns are using the image of orangutans to build awareness. “This is literally because of their faces,” says Richard Zimmerman, executive director of the nonprofit organization Orangutan Outreach. “They’re so much like us, it is uncanny. It’s impossible to look into the eyes of a baby orangutan that has lost his or her mother because of palm oil and not feel compassion; they remind people of their own babies. Imagine, these little angels are now homeless and orphaned so that people can have snack foods that are creamier with a longer shelf life.”

The situation facing the orangutans in the wild is critical. “Entire populations are being wiped out as forests are destroyed. Orangutans are being cut off from one another, leading to genetic collapse. Without habitat, they simply will not survive in the wild. They will be limited to zoos,” Zimmerman says.

The long-term goal of Orangutan Outreach, which partners with many organizations on the ground in Indonesia, is to prevent this from happening. “We want to see all physically healthy orangutans living in the wild—in safe, protected forests with minimal intrusion by humans—far away from poachers, loggers, miners, and palm oil companies. For all other orangutans that have been injured or disabled from palm oil production and other human activities, we want them to be able to live out their lives in dignity in long-term sanctuary care free of cages. This will require long-term attention, commitment, and funding, but we feel they deserve nothing less,” Zimmerman says.

Furthermore, palm oil poses other threats in addition to wildlife reduction and extinction. Indonesia currently is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China, with 85% of its emissions coming from rainforest and peatland degradation.8 Corporate land grabbing (the seizing of land by a nation, state, or organization, especially illegally, underhandedly, or unfairly) often is used to obtain land and results in increased food insecurity, child labor, and forced labor. “For these reasons, palm oil that stems from deforestation, wildlife endangerment, and human conflicts is being referred to as ‘unsustainable’ or ‘conflict’ palm oil, with the latter being more appropriate,” Schaeffer Yildiz says.

The good news, according to Jacobson, is that solutions to the palm oil debate do exist. “Interesterified oils appear to be safe; they’re made from soybean oil and typically include more polyunsaturated fatty acids than palm oil,” he says. “Mixtures of cottonseed, high-oleic canola, and other oils might work, depending on the application. If companies must use palm oil, they should at least use palm oil that’s sustainably produced either outside of Southeast Asia or on land certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil [RSPO].”

The RSPO was established in 2004, consisting of more than 1,000 members representing 50 different countries, and charged with ensuring that no new forests or conservation areas are cleared for palm oil plantations and that current plantations uphold human rights laws. Presently, 16% of the world’s supply of palm oil is derived from RSPO-certified plantations. According to Schaeffer Yildiz, “Consumers are being misled. Many of the companies that use the RSPO label are in fact still causing rainforest and peatland destruction, largely due to a lack of transparency in the palm oil supplier chain. For this reason, RAN is encouraging companies to use the term ‘responsible’ palm oil to indicate that their palm oil has been produced from traceable suppliers that don’t engage in deforestation, species extinction, high greenhouse gas emissions, or human rights violations.”

“The big environmental groups have done an excellent job recently of getting large companies, of which many already belong to the RSPO, to commit to responsible palm oil,” Zimmerman says. “The RSPO’s definition of sustainability is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough.”

RAN coined the term “The Snack Food 20” to describe 20 household names to target for commitments to change. “The Snack Food 20 have significant buying power,” Schaeffer Yildiz says. “Since we launched our Last Stand of the Orangutan campaign in September 2013, we’ve witnessed a huge shift in the palm oil sector. Several companies have recently strengthened their commitment to eliminate conflict palm oil from their supply chain, and others are in the process of doing so. But a number of companies have failed to take action.”

“Companies need to completely eliminate deforestation from their supply chains,” Zimmerman says. “Standing forests must be left intact. Until all palm oil comes from traceable, conflict-free, deforestation-free sources, we must continue to fight it.”

What RDs Can Do
Food and nutrition professionals can help by raising awareness about the greater implications of human diets. A healthful diet is one that weighs the overall footprint of the food one eats to encompass nutritional, environmental, and social impacts. Food manufacturers have been looking at this issue for a while, but the foodservice industry, private label grocers, and institutional settings could have a huge impact in transforming the palm oil sector if they were educated and mobilized. With the palm oil debate now in the public sphere, RDs and health professionals can become leaders in these issues.

To begin taking action, RDs can do the following:

• Write, call, and petition companies to use responsible palm oil in the products they make and sell.

• Help companies follow through on their commitments to use responsible palm oil through positive feedback. Let them know you’re happy with their decision and are more likely to recommend their products to clients and patients over a company that hasn’t committed to responsible palm oil.

• Tell clients and patients that palm oil largely is found in processed foods, of which they should limit their intake, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and leading health organizations.

• Teach consumers how to read labels and spot hidden forms of palm oil or oil mixtures.

• Engage the public in healthful discussions by informing them about conflict palm oil using social media sites and blogging.

• Contact an environmental organization that’s fighting against conflict palm oil and ask them for ways in which nutrition professionals can lend their expertise to help.

• Join the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, whose mission is to “empower members to be leaders in sustainable and accessible food and water systems.”

— Beth Anne Conlon, MS, RDN, is a doctoral candidate in the biomedical sciences, clinical investigation track at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. She conducts research on behavioral and lifestyle interventions to improve cardiometabolic health.

— Ashley M. Colpaart, MS, RDN, is past chair of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group and a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary studies in food science and food safety at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

1. McNamara DJ. Palm oil and health: a case of manipulated perception and misuse of science. J Am Coll Nutr. 2010;29(3 Suppl):240s-244s.

2. Lichtenstein AH, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation. 2006;114(1):82-96.

3. Remig V, Franklin B, Margolis S, Kostas G, Nece T, Street JC. Trans fats in America: a review of their use, consumption, health implications, and regulation. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(4):585-592.

4. US Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th ed. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 2010.

5. Nestel P. Trans fatty acids: are its cardiovascular risks fully appreciated? Clin Ther. 2014;36(3):315-321.

6. Palm oil exports by country in 1000 MT. Index Mundi website. http://www.indexmundi.com/agriculture/?commodity=palm-oil&graph=exports. Accessed April 11, 2014.

7. Problem with palm oil factsheet. Rainforest Action Network website. http://ran.org/problem-palm-oil-factsheet. Accessed April 15, 2014.

8. Indonesian rainforests. Rainforest Action Network website. http://d7.snipe.radicaldesigns.org/indonesian-rainforests. Accessed April 10, 2014.