Food is constantly changing—from ingredients and “regulations” to processes and products. While researching for and writing my book from September of 2012 until May of 2014 there were several major notable shifts, from the grassroots fight for consumer’s right to know GMOs to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally taking a stance on trans fat (a.k.a. partially hydrogenated oils or PHOs and/or hydrogenated oils) in food. Call me a total dork, but these things completely excite me!
So what does that mean for you the consumer? While these man made fats are not banned yet, according the FDA, “…due to the risks associated with consuming PHOs, FDA has issued a Federal Register notice with its preliminary determination that PHOs are no longer "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, for short. If this preliminary determination is finalized then PHOs would become food additives subject to premarket approval by FDA.”
Consequently, some of your favorite fried food, snacks and baked goods will eventually have to find a trans fat replacement. Enter palm oil. Because of its favorable physical characteristics to hydrogenated oil, it is practically slated as a food industry substitute for the troubled trans. This edible vegetable oil comes from the reddish pulp of the fruit of the oil palm tree. There is also palm kernel oil that comes from the seed of the same fruit.
Is palm oil the panacea? I don’t think so…
- Although plant-based, it is a saturated fat (like coconut oil). And while healthier than its animal sourced counterparts, it could still be problematic and potentially artery clogging.
- An increase in palm oil demand (now more than double what it was in 2005 with an estimated 2.7 billion pounds imported in 2012) means supply must meet demand. According to the World Wildlife Fund, roughly one in ten products found on our supermarket shelves today contain palm oil, but only a small percentage of the palm oil that is used to make these products actually comes from a sustainable source. This in turn has a substantial environmental impact.
Given the growing environmental concerns, The Rainforest Alliance, an international non-profit that works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior, is now certifying producers to ensure palm oil sustainability.
What can you do? Consume palm oil moderately and thoughtfully. And realize that the food industry will invariably point to palm oil as the panacea. But it is not…for your health and that of the environment.