What is the truth about Palm Oil?
by FoodMaestro | 24 January 2017
What is the truth about Palm Oil?
By Dr Lauri-Ann Van der Poel
Recently, a story about a popular nutty chocolate spread hit the UK news over claims that palm oil in the spread can cause cancer. The spread is Nutella, that children the world over love and which no-one is claiming to be a health food (have you seen how much sugar is in it too?)! However, it can bring a little joy to one’s tastebuds when enjoyed as a modest-sized treat and my own kids love it once in a while. What is more, the manufacturer, Ferrero Rocher, works only with hazelnuts on this product.
As an allergy specialist working with many food allergic children and families, I have applauded the transparency of this manufacturer with regards to specifying the nuts with which it works, and in sharing information about its production line, which is free of other nuts and seeds. This means as it is regarded as a ‘safe’ product for those with peanut or tree nut allergies (other than hazelnut), and may be enjoyed as a ‘mainstream’ treat.
Palm oil, is already the subject of valid ethical and ecological discussions, so, what was behind the recent news story reporting that Nutella’s makers were ‘fighting back over claims the spread causes cancer’. It prompted a little dig for answers.
In this article, we look at:
- What is palm oil?
- Palm oil as a dietary fat source
- Environmental impact of deforestation
- Does it increase your risk of cancer?
- Should we stop eating palm oil?
Palm oil is a light, cheap, and easy to use type of vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit of the African oil palm tree. You’d be surprised how many products contain it from biscuits to toothpaste. Using FoodMaestro, we found that almost 20% of products available in major supermarkets contain palm oil and related products.
Are there reasons to be concerned about Palm oil?
In the nutritional world, the role of fat in the diet is being re-thought in light of increasing evidence that the low-fat revolutions have done nothing to curb the global rise of obesity and type 2 diabetes. While it is acknowledged that over-eating and exaggerating the intake of fats – be it saturated or unsaturated, of animal or plant origin – can lead to health problems, the growing consensus is that fats, per se, are by no means bad for health. If fact, they are a necessary part of a healthy diet. Palm oil, in that respect, is as healthy or unhealthy as any other vegetable oil or fat.
There are many drives devoted to the impact of palm oil practices on the environment and how to reduce that impact, as with all agricultural practices.There are sources of sustainable palm oil out there to address this and which are so-labelled.
Read more about this in the report from DEFRA. 
In May 2016 , the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) , claimed palm oil in potentially carcinogenic when processed at high temperatures of more than 200ºC but has not recommended stopping the use of palm oil. .
In December 2016, an academic study fund partially by UK Charity, Worldwide Cancer Research , claimed a more rapid spread of cancer in mice fed large amounts of palmitic oil. Dr Alex Dedman wrote a useful blog  examining the recent research by Dr Benitah related to the glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE) and 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD) found in palmitic oil. These chemicals are present in all vegetable oils, including olive oil and are not proven to be cancerous, he pointed out. It also explains that the research relates to identifying the cells responsible for cancer spread (metastasis) and that a “major component of many types of fat, including palm oil, may help speed up the process.” It is noted in that some media attention has just focused on palm oil in Nutella in light of its being such an iconic brand in Europe.” Globally, a jar of Nutella is reportedly sold every 2.5 seconds!
The BBC article also notes that GE, the substance central to concerns about an increased cancer risk is only produced if the oil is heated beyond 200 ºC. It is reassuring for those with a Nutella habit that chocolate needs to be handled at 70º C or below for optimal processing and flavour, and Nutella is made under confirmed controlled temperatures. However, deep fat frying with vegetable oil and processing at high temperatures may present more of a risk and heat is used in the initial refining process.
Bottom line: It is not clearly stated how much one would need to eat to be of concern, if in fact there is any significantly increased change of getting cancer from eating a routine daily intake of palm-oil containing foods.
It is telling that the WHO has not issued a warning or suggested we stop eating palm oil.
Research is still limited on the potential health pros and cons of palmitic acid and palm oil consumption. It is too early to start chucking out all your meat, dairy, and everything else which contains palmitic acid. We all should know no food is ever all ‘good’ or all ‘bad’. As Dr Dedman also notes, “Natural foods which contain palmitic acid can contain a whole host of other compounds which the body needs to stay healthy.”
Dr Aznar Benitah’s research will further add to understanding of our nutritional health and why excessive consumption of processed foods and foods containing high levels of saturated fatty acids is unlikely to be health promoting.
The Research to date does not yet give us answers to:
- Is Palm oil more carcinogenic than other fats and oils ?
- How much would a child at different ages and an adult need to eat to be any more of a risk that the many carcinogenic challenges we face every day, such as sunlight?
For now, FoodMaestro is reliably informed that there are no plans to stop selling Nutella in UK stores, so it is up to you to go with moderation or exclusion as you wish and keep your eyes on information sources you trust for advice. If new or definitive advice becomes available, we will keep you updated!
FoodMaestro gives you greater power in the quest to know what is in your food and the choice to eat it or not is yours. Use the palm oil filter under ‘vegetable oils’ in ingredients to stay palm oil free. Personally, my kids enjoy a teaspoon of Nutella on their toast at breakfast occasionally, while I keep an eye on the portions for sugar content as much as the oil content. They know their chocolate spread treat is a luxury and not a health food. I use FoodMaestro’s sugar filter to make sure I avoid high sugar, salt and unwelcome sweeteners and additives in their health bars, smoothies and yoghurts and pasta sauces (when I’m not cooking from fresh ;)).
Keep an eye on your healthspan - not just your lifespan!
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). UK statement on sustainable palm oil: 3 years on progress report. November 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/480165/sustainable-palm-oil-3years-progress.pdf
About Dr Lauri-Ann Van der Poel
Dr Lauri-Ann Van der Poel is a paediatrician and allergist doing specialist children’s allergy clinics at Guys and St Thomas’s Trust since 2013.
She was awarded an MSc in Allergy from Imperial in 2014 and her main fields of interest are food allergy, chronic urticaria, health innovation and medical education. Lauri-Ann also serves on the paediatric board of the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) and has presented on allergy and chronic urticaria in a variety of educational settings and at national and international allergy meetings.
Lauri-Ann is a member of the Food Maestro team and provides FoodMaestro information, opinions, content, references and links to other knowledge resources (collectively, “Content”) for informational purposes only. Dr Van der Poel does not provide any medical advice on this site and her views expressed on this blog and website are personal opinion and may have no relation to those of any academic, hospital, practice or other institution with which she affiliated.