The Oil Palm Unclassified

Response to the Written Question from Senator Muriel Targnion

On December 24, 2012, the Belgian Senator Muriel Targnion tabled a parliamentary question which suggests a link between the consumption of palm oil and the development of breast cancer. Dr. Jean Graille, a Montpellier-based scientist specialized in the biotechnology of oils and lipochemistry, responded to the Senator, explaining that these statements were incorrect and that it was important to fully understand the scientific facts before making observations which could harm public health.
As a scientist, I am aware of the importance of providing accurate information that is useful for the public. Scientific questions are often very complex and technical in nature and need to be simplified to make them comprehensible for the public. However, this must not be at the expense of scientific fact. This is particularly true when it comes to findings on health, which can trigger unwanted anxieties.
Unfortunately, this approach is rarely followed. Senator Targnion’s parliamentary question, which linked palm oil to the development of breast cancer, has possibly frightened several Belgian citizens – but it is not based on scientific facts.
In her question, the Senator made reference to a scientific study which does not mention palm oil, but which identified two trans-fatty acids linked to the development of breast cancer. Palm oil contains no trace of trans-fatty acids.
For the benefit of the Senator and all those who are under a cloud of uncertainty, I will present you with the facts concerning the use of palm oil.
Refined palm oil is indeed widely used in the food industry for various technical reasons. Until the 1960s/1970s, food manufacturers used refined animal fats such as lard, beef and mutton tallow and even horse fat (hippofrite – northern France and Belgium) for industrial frying, preparing specialized fats for pastry making and producing industrial and table margarines which were significantly cheaper than butter. During the 1970s, researchers showed that these fats contained too much saturated fatty acid and could lead to cardiovascular diseases and, gradually, alternatives were sought.
The arrival of hydrogenation allowed fluid oils from soybeans, sunflowers, and rapeseeds to be transformed into the equivalent of animal fats, which were particularly useful for their plasticity. Technically it was a success but consumers quickly realized that hydrogenated oils generated “off flavors and room odors ” which lead, for example, to the characteristic odors found in fast food restaurants such as McDonalds. Researchers then discovered that hydrogenated oils contained high levels of harmful trans-fatty acids which can trigger cardiovascular diseases, colorectal cancer, and breast cancer. After a period where research focused on selective hydrogenation processes to limit the quantity of trans-fatty acids, food manufacturers sought a less expensive and more satisfactory solution on a medical level.
This period, between 1975 and 1985, corresponds to the rise in the production of solid tropical vegetable oils such as palm, copra/coconut and palm kernel oils. Rapidly food manufactures realized that these oils were stable and resisted well to oxidation and heat during cooking, two parameters which cause the toxic degradation of chemical compounds. Refined palm oil, in particular, makes it possible to produce the usual, above-mentioned products with financial and stability gains because this oil is the cheapest on the market, “the icing on the cake” being that this oil does not contain any trans-fatty acids; its high percentage of saturated fatty acids is not a problem since they are not or are only very slightly assimilated by the intestinal wall, unlike those provided by animal fats, thanks to the biochemical structure of their triglycerides. In addition, refined palm oil contains provitamin A, tocopherols, and above all is a dominant source of tocotrienols, which offer excellent protection against cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Virgin red palm oil would be much more satisfactory on a nutritional level because it is considered to be the tropical equivalent of virgin olive oil by certain researchers.
Using refined palm oil makes it possible to produce cocoa butter equivalents that are 10 times cheaper than cocoa butter. Over the past 10 years the EU has authorized the use of up to 5% cocoa butter equivalents in cocoa butter without altering the sensory quality of chocolate.
Due to the multiple probable causes of breast cancer, many researchers have implied, without providing any formal evidence, that trans-fatty acids are involved in this pathology, especially trans-vaccenic, trans-palmitoleic, and (trans-oleic) elaidic acids. However, refined palm oil does not contain any of these acids, despite what may have been heard.
On the other hand dairy fats (butter, milk, cheese), like fats from ruminant meat, contain small amounts. This is due to the natural microbial hydrogenation reactions which take place, especially in the rumen of cattle. If palm oil were to suddenly disappear from industrial formulations, consumers would lose a lot in terms of quality, and food manufacturers would be forced to go back to expensive solutions, a bad development at a time of economic crisis.
To finish, could the Senator please consider the composition of sunflower-based margarine spread which contains 30% water and 70% non-hydrogenated vegetable oils including 36% sunflower, 14% rapeseed, 15% palm and 5% palm kernel oil – this is a good blend between developed and emerging countries, is it not?
In relation to the clearing of the tropical forests, let us not forget that man has always cleared land to plant his food crops. Keep in mind that the world’s population has reached almost 7 billion and everyone needs to be fed…
However, let us note that the palm tree produces ten times more oil per hectare than soybeans (and more than seven times more than sunflower), which makes it easy to understand that soy is responsible for the disappearance of ten times more biodiversity-rich areas than the palm tree, especially in the Brazilian Amazon.
In France much land has been cleared and continues to be cleared for grain crops and vineyards and nobody seems concerned by the disappearance of such a rich biodiversity and in particular the disappearance of small animals.