Le Fonds Français pour l’Alimentation et la Santé (FFAS) published on 21 November 2012 an overview of all facts and current knowledge on palm oil’s nutritional, social and environmental aspects. Following a methodical and multidisciplinary approach, three scientific experts were asked to submit a first draft in June 2012: Dr Jean-Michel Lecerf (Nutrition Department, Institut Pasteur from Lille), Mrs Odile Morin (ITERG, Pessac) and Mr Alain Rival (Cirad, Montpellier). The resulting text was then analysed by the FFAS’s scientific Board and its President, Prof Bernard Guy Grand, and was finally discussed by a selection of 40 stakeholders.
The present factsheet provides a summary of the FFAS’s dossier, conclusions and recommendations on palm oil.
Background information on palm oil
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil solid at room temperature produced from the fruits of palms. The fruits have fleshy shells that contain about 50% oil. Oil palms are highly efficient oil producers in terms of production per hectare.
Oil palms only grow in the tropics. Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s largest palm exporters, produce some 87% of the total palm oil. It is suitable for cultivation by smallholders and provides employment for millions of small farmers in South East Asia. Consumption is driven by China, India and Indonesia. Europe imports 12% of the global palm oil production.
Palm oil is among the world’s most used ingredients and is fit for many applications. Palm oil has specific functional properties that make this fat an important ingredient in food manufacturing, as it can provide taste and texture, heat stability, organoleptic qualities, resistance to oxidation, solidity and smoothness to a whole range of food products. 19% of its production is also used by oleo-chemical products (soaps, detergents, cosmetics, candles, etc) and 1% for biofuel.
Compared with other liquid vegetable oils, palm oil has a higher content in saturated fatty acids, around 50%. However, this needs to be put in perspective with other similar solid fats that could be used as substitutes. Butter, for example, contains around 66% of saturated fats and cocoa butter 61%.
Nutritional recommendations advise limiting saturated fat consumption to 10 to 12% of our daily energy intake (this corresponds to 27g per day for a 2 000 kcal daily intake). In France, palm oil consumption is moderate and therefore is of no concern. Besides, in European diets, palm oil is never used as such for cooking but rather consumed in smaller quantities in other food products. The average consumption is estimated at 2 kg per person per year, meaning that it corresponds to 6% of the total fat consumption of adults from 18 to 79 years-old. A balanced diet is a varied diet, and food diversity and moderation are currently a reality in France.
Substituting palm oil: a solution or a problem?
The use of palm oil in food products over the last twenty years has been instrumental in reducing trans fatty acids. Indeed, the semi-fluid or solid consistency of palm oil and palm kernel is a positive alternative to partially hydrogenated oils which create trans fatty acids. Removing palm oil or palm kernel oil from food products without creating trans fatty acids would lead to using technological processes of oils’ transformation or other solid fats such as butter, richer in saturated fatty acids.
Substitution does not only concern the nutritional qualities of a product but also its properties, namely its texture and taste. No other alternative vegetable fats naturally solid at room temperature providing the same features exist in sufficient quantity. Substituting palm oil is not a recommended option if it leads to trans fatty acids’ creation or the use of ingredients with higher saturated fat content.
Palm oil labelling
Currently, many food products do not indicate whether they contain palm oil, which many consumers find misleading. According to the newly adopted European Food Information Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, all individual oils present in food product will be indicated on the label. This will be implemented as from 2014.
Environmental and social aspects
Palm oil trees have particularly high yields. They provide 39% of the global vegetable oils’ production while only occupying 7% of oilseeds agricultural lands. Palm oil trees only grow in tropical areas where primary forests and biodiversity are at their best. This forced cohabitation created many tensions. New sustainable plantations must now comply with international standards as well as sustainability criteria established by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This set of rules cover environmental and social aspects to ensure the protection of biodiversity and forests as well as of local communities. Consumers have a role to play in sustaining demand for sustainably produced palm oil to encourage more and more producers and users to join RSPO and comply with its criteria.
When correctly planted and managed, palm oil trees result in a high economic growth for the producing areas as well as an important reduction of rural poverty. A worker in a palm oil plantation can earn in average 36€ per day while this amounts sinks to 1,7€ per day for irrigated rice. WWF estimated that 25 million Indonesians rely on palm oil cultivation for their living.
- Banning palm oil from food products is not recommended. From a public health perspective, its high content in saturated fats justifies moderating its consumption, however current consumption levels of palm oil in France are not a source of particular concern. Substitution of palm oil should be done when it does not impact nutritional, organoleptic and technical quality of the products. A healthy and balanced diet relies on diversity and moderation.
- It is more important and useful for the environment and for local communities to promote sustainable production of palm oil rather than its suppression. Most of palm oil consumption takes place in developing countries that would not require any sustainability criteria in its production. Besides, substituting palm oil with other vegetable oils or animal fats would require using more land for equivalent tonnage. Suppression would then be counter-productive for the environment.
- To manage and organise the development of palm oil trees, taking into account the agro-ecological, social and environmental challenges in producing countries.
- To agree on certification processes based on sound scientific facts and shared values.
- To strive for certified palm oil to represent as big a share as possible in the total palm oil present in the market.
- To rationalize palm oil use on a case by case basis and to not lose sight that substitution with other fats and oils should result in nutritional improvements.
- To avoid that current palm oil consumption levels in France significantly increase.
- To ensure that European consumers receive complete and correct information on all the challenges around palm oil production and consumption so as to prevent any initiatives that, due to partial knowledge, would jeopardize the sector’s efforts in limiting its production impact.
What is the margarine sector doing for public health?
The fat composition of retail margarines, vegetable fat spreads and margarines used as ingredients in food products has been continuously improved over time. As soon as 1995, a Code of Practice on Trans Fatty Aciddemonstrated the sector’s commitment to reduce trans fatty acids as much as possible. The margarine sector’s achievements in that regard were praised by international food and health agencies, such the World Health Organisation and the European Food Safety Authority. This would not have been possible without using palm oil.
What is the margarine sector doing for the environment?
IMACE and most of its Member Companies are RSPO members and actively promote sustainable production of palm oil. IMACE Member Associations in Belgium and the Netherlands launched national initiatives with other food and non-food sectors with the commitment to use only sustainable palm oil by the end of 2015.