Researchers have demanded an independent probe into the safety of palm oil amid claims existing studies have been funded by the industry.
Palm oil is a type of trans fat thought to be found in roughly half of all packaged goods on supermarket shelves in the UK under various names.
Trans fats are widely recognised as bad for health, but there is significant research, funded by the industry, pointing towards palm oil as healthy.
The palm oil industry has been accused of using tactics to influence research into its positive health effects, in a similar way to the alcohol and tobacco industries.
The oil, controversial for its extraction process in predominately Malaysia and Indonesia, needs more independent research, the researchers said.
Of nine pieces of research found in literature showing overwhelmingly positive health associations, four of them showing ‘overwhelmingly positive health associations’ were authored by the palm oil industry, the report, led by the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF, said.
The palm oil industry has been accused of using tactics similar to the alcohol and tobacco industries to influence research into the positive health effects of its products
This was specifically The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), a government agency responsible for the promotion and development of the palm oil industry in Malaysia.
‘The contested nature of the evidence suggests the need for independent, comprehensive studies of the health impact of palm oil consumption,’ the researchers wrote in the study, published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.
‘The relationship between the palm oil and processed food industries, and the tactics they employ, resembles practices adopted by the tobacco and alcohol industries.
‘However, the palm oil industry receives comparatively little scrutiny,’ the report said.
Palm oil consumption has been linked to a variety of ailments including risk of death from heart disease, high cholesterol and narrowing arteries – but the evidence is mixed.
But the researchers anticipate an increase of its use in food in the near future.
Palm oil is naturally more solid than other vegetable oils, therefore is an easy choice in the industrial process.
But it is also been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration with a similar recommendation by the WHO.
‘An increase in the use of palm oil as a potential replacement for TFA in ultra-processed foods could be anticipated,’ the report said.
The study said labelling on products is often unclear, and palm oil can be listed under any one of more than 200 alternative names.
It often appears in cookies, peanut butter, cereals, cleaning products, laundry detergent, lipstick and lotions.
‘Consumers may be unaware of what they are eating or its safety,’ the study said.
The study also pointed to the health effect of the production of palm oil, native to West Africa, in countries where it is grown.
The study said: ‘Of major concern is the effect of exposure to particulate matter on fetal, infant and child mortality, as well as children’s cognitive, educational and economic attainment.’
Researchers, led by Sowmya Kadandale from United Nations Children’s Fund in Indonesia, urged for more research and tighter regulations.
The palm oil and processed food industries have mutually benefited, but researchers should be wary of being influenced by lobbyists.
The study comes after the controversy of the 2018 Iceland Christmas advert, which highlighted the harmful environmental impact of palm oil.
But the advert, created in partnership with Greenpeace, was banned from television after being deemed ‘too political’.
It featured an orangutan displaced due to deforestation. His forest home was replaced by a palm oil plantation.
Worldwide production of the oil has increased from 15 million tonnes in 1995 to 66 million tonnes in 2017.
Oil palm plantations cover an area roughly the size of New Zealand, with an area the size of a football pitch is torn down in Indonesia’s rainforest every 25 seconds.
Oil palms typically grown in low-lying, tropical regions – the same areas are home to rainforests and peatlands, which host endangered species like orangutans, rhinos and tigers.
In many cases, deforestation has led to ‘green deserts’ which native animals and plants are unable to survive in.
Deforestation and the burning of forests pollutes the environment and increases greenhouse gas emissions, causing air pollution and haze linked to premature deaths, respiratory illness and cardiovascular diseases.
The WHO wants palm oil banned globally by 2023.
WHAT COMMON ITEMS IS PALM OIL IN AND WHAT CAN YOU USE INSTEAD?
Palm oil can give chocolate its smooth, shiny appearance and prevents melting.
Greenpeace said it had evidence that suppliers to Cadbury’s parent company Mondelez had destroyed 70,000 hectares of rainforest since 2016.
Mondelez International insists it is ‘committed to eradicating deforestation in the palm oil supply and actively working with suppliers to ensure palm oil is fully traceable’.
It added that 12 suppliers who did not meet company standards had been excluded.
Product containing palm oil: Cadbury Dairy Milk buttons.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Montezuma organic smooth milk chocolate giant buttons.
Palm oil helps make it smooth.
Product containing palm oil: Tesco vanilla ice cream.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Yeo Valley organic vanilla ice cream.
Palm oil is often used in baking as it is semi-solid, like butter.
Product containing palm oil: Kingsmill 50/50.
…and one that doesn’t: Essential Waitrose wholemeal medium sliced.
The oil helps its crunch.
Product containing palm oil: Jordans Country Crisp.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Dorset Cereals oat granola.
The oil, which is also used in margarine, aids spreadability.
Product containing palm oil: Asda smooth peanut butter.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Meridian organic crunchy peanut butter.
Our hair’s natural oils are restored by palm oil.
Product containing palm oil: Head & Shoulders.
. . .and one that doesn’t: PHB Ethical Beauty shampoo.
The oil is often in frozen roasts.
Product containing palm oil: Aunt Bessie’s homestyle roast potatoes.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Waitrose roast potatoes in goose fat.
The moisturising oil removes dirt and oil from skin and hair.
Product containing palm oil: Dove Beauty Cream Bar (Sodium Palm Kernelate).
. . .and one that doesn’t: Lush Fresh Farmacy facial soap.
Refined palm oil is used in many cleaning products.
Product containing palm oil: Ariel original washing liquid (Sodium Palm Kernelate).
. . .and one that doesn’t: Ecozone laundry liquid.
Palm oil’s high melting temperature makes it ideal for candles.
Product containing palm oil: It features in Ikea candles.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Bloomtown Botanicals candles.
Lipstick and liner
The oil holds colour well, is hard to melt and is tasteless.
Product containing palm oil: Maybelline Color Sensational Lip Liner.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Neek.
Palm oil makes biscuits crispy.
Product containing palm oil: Tesco Christmas pudding biscuits for dogs.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Lily’s Kitchen Sun Shiny Day snack bar for dogs.
Chewy ones often use the oil.
Product containing palm oil: Bassetts orange and cranberry multivitamins.
. . .and one that doesn’t: Viridian High Five multivitamin.