Our understanding of the health effects of fats is constantly evolving.
Recently, the United States Food and Drug Administration determined that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) — the primary source of artificial trans fat in processed food — are not safe for use in human food.
Trans fat can naturally occur in the gut of grazing animals, which is why milk and other types of dairy contain it. But PHOs are the main source of it in the United States. It raises LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol which increases the chances of heart disease. The FDA’s ruling is expected to reduce coronary disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.
Under the ruling, companies have a three-year compliance period, allowing them to reformulate products without PHOs or to petition for specific uses of PHOs. After the compliance period, companies will not be allowed to add PHOs to food without FDA approval.
In the confectionery industry, PHOs have been extremely common, especially in compound coatings, says Lynne Morehart, oils and shortenings senior principal scientist, Cargill. But many manufacturers had either made changes before the FDA ruling came out, or had been evaluating alternatives.
“Our solutions allow product formulators to replace PHOs without compromising flavor, texture, shelf life and consistency, and have helped more than 300 manufacturing partners move away from PHOs without sacrificing quality since 2011,” says Morehart.
While coconut oil has seen a surge in popularity, she says, the most common alternatives for PHOs would include blends of palm kernel, palm kernel fractions, and palm oil.
“These options would not have any trans fat from hydrogenation, but will have comparable saturated fat levels,” says Morehart.
But while palm oil may be a non-hydrogenated alternative, it remains controversial.
Complaints about deforestation, wildlife habitat loss, and increased carbon dioxide emissions are not new and have plagued the palm oil industry for years. Demand for palm oil (it’s estimated to be in half of packaged items found in supermarkets) is growing, but so are demands for sustainability.
“Better and more environmentally sound management practices have appeared throughout the palm supply chain,” says Dr. Kalyana Sundram, deputy ceo and director, Science & Environment, Malaysian Palm Oil Council. “Replanting of old trees after 25 years is banking on higher yielding planting materials that promise a significant jump in productivity from its current average of 4 metric tonnes to at least 6 metric tonnes of oil per hectare.”
Despite the controversy surrounding palm oil, there aren’t any more economically friendly alternatives. Palm oil has a better yield per hectare than other vegetable oils like rapeseed or soybean oil, and requires less fertilizer and pesticide.
Which means the best course of action is to improve the palm oil industry.
Members of the confectionery industry are already playing a role by sourcing sustainable palm oil.
According to the Guardian’s interactive story “From rainforest to your cupboard: the real story of palm oil,” Nestle uses 0.41 metric tonnes of palm oil, and sources 94 percent of it sustainably. Mondelez, meanwhile sources 0.201 out of 0.29 metric tonnes sustainably. Cadbury has also committed to more than just sourcing 100 percent Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified palm oil. It’s requiring suppliers to be 100 percent traceable by the end of 2015.
Cargill, similarly, has pledged to build a traceable and transparent palm oil supply chain, committed to no deforestation of high conservation value lands, development on peat (which increases carbon dioxide emissions), and exploitation of indigenous people and local communities. They have also pledged to assist smallholders — local farmers who grow oil palms on small farms — in developing sustainable land use and agronomic practices.
According to RSPO, smallholders produce about 40 percent of the world’s palm oil. Because they account for such a large percentage of production, turning the palm oil industry into a sustainable one relies largely on getting these farmers on board. Like Cargill, RSPO has committed to helping smallholders, having established the RSPO Smallholder Support Fund in 2012 to provide monetary aid.
Efforts like these to improve sustainability in the palm oil sector has, in turn, led to others.
According to BankTrack, an NGO support organization, the population of Sumatran orangutans dropped by 14 percent between 2004 and 2008 due largely to a loss of habitat for palm oil expansion. Statistics like these have caused outcries against the use of palm oil. They’ve also led to initiatives like the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystem (SAFE) Project, which studies species conservation in forest areas that have been converted into oil palm plantations.
Focusing on the farmers, wildlife and the landscape on which these oil palms are planted, the industry can continue to find options to improve the production and sustainability of palm oil.