In early May, senators in the French Parliament discussed a proposed Bill on biodiversity, nature and landscapes – commonly known as the Biodiversity Bill.
Although the text is lengthy, the Bill is still a clear demonstration of the common will of the French Parliament to put the debate on biodiversity on the right track. Like many others, I clearly support the stated intention of this Bill.
However, there is a critical part of the Bill that is directly linked to my professional expertise, and which is therefore puzzling to me.
As the parliamentary game of back-and-forth progressed, with discussions and amendments in both Houses, an additional tax on palm oil made its way into the National Assembly version of the Bill. This tax was put forward by MPs, based at least in part by allegations about palm oil’s effects on health.
For me, as a nutritionist, it is clear that the health allegations made against palm oil, voiced as justification for the tax, are nonsense.
It’s very important, first of all, to understand why palm oil is widely used in food products. The choice of a vegetable fat or vegetable oil by the food industry is often directly linked to the manufacturing and functional properties of a particular ingredient compared to competing oils or fats.
Food manufacturers that use palm oil as an ingredient do so for the same reasons, one of which is that palm oil has an important “technical” benefit compared to other vegetable oils – it is naturally semi-solid.
This means that palm oil can be added to food products without requiring partial hydrogenation – an industrial process that is instead needed to “harden” softer oils, and in so doing creating so-called “partially hydrogenated oils”.
Partially hydrogenated oils are very unhealthy, as they contain trans fatty acids (known as trans fats), whose harmful effects have been recognised unanimously by the scientific community.
Many countries have decided to ban trans fats in food products altogether, but neither France nor the European Union has taken any action thus far.
Palm oil, because of its natural state, does not require this industrial process of partial hydrogenation – and therefore palm oil never has trans fats. This is a major reason why the use of palm oil in food products has risen, not just in France, but also around the world.
Understanding this fact is fundamental to understanding why palm oil’s use is rising.
Palm oil is a healthy vegetable oil, naturally made up of 50% saturated and 50% unsaturated fatty acids. This balance, added to the total lack of trans fats, explains why palm oil is so popular and so widely used.
For some, this increase in palm oil use is seen as a problem. However, studies clearly show that French consumers actually consume very little palm oil.
It’s true that palm oil is found in many products, but it is present only in small quantities. This research has been conclusively published by the French agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (Anses) in France.
The level of palm oil consumption, therefore, should not be a matter of concern at all. In fact, it seems that the palm oil tax is based on multiple, unfounded, fears.
If a tax is to be introduced – which is really not justifiable, especially when looking at the failed Danish experience with a “fat tax” – I believe it would be wiser to apply it to trans fats whose impact on public health is undeniable, and globally-recognised.
The problem with taxes based on fear and misunderstanding is that they can often have unintended negative consequences.
First, a tax on palm oil could lead to unhealthy alternatives – such as trans fats – being used in higher quantities in food in France. That is a bad outcome.
Second, a tax on palm oil would, as a direct result, raise prices for food products.
Yet we know that eating well is often a matter of available budget. The least fortunate families are also those that consume manufactured food products the most.
So, taxing palm oil will lead to higher prices for people buying food. That is also a very bad outcome.
As a nutritionist – not a politician – my message to the Members of the French Parliament is simple: when you evaluate this biodiversity bill project, take into account the harmful effects of your decision, both on public health and on the cost of living. The tax should be scrapped.