In a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, the noble effort to remove trans fats from the human food supply appears to have resulted in a replacement ingredient that not only is likely harmful to the health of humans but ultimately to the planet.
In the mid-1990s, health scholars started to recognize the harm that “trans fatty acids,” which were common in processed and fast foods, caused cardiovascular disease.
Within a decade, labeling and advocacy turned the hydrogenated ingredient into a public health enemy, nearly rivaling cigarettes. And last year, the Food and Drug Administration mandated the phase-out of trans fats in prepared foods by June 2018.
So what has replaced trans fats in processed and fast foods?
For the most part, palm oil.
It has good shelf stability, creamy texture and other features that are desirable by food manufacturers.
The oil is extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees, which grow in the tropics. As a result, the demand explosion for palm oil, which has been around for a while, is creating another reason for countries in tropical regions to slash and burn rainforests for a commodity in addition to the usual suspects of beef, soybeans and wood.
Now palm oil, just like trans fat used to be, seems to be in everything that comes in a package, from cookies, crackers, ice cream, candy, margarines and similar spreads, microwave (and movie) popcorn to even “energy bars.” Check your ingredient labels. And it goes beyond food. The cheap oil also is in a lot of soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and other body products.
How much palm oil is in our food supply? According to USDA data, U.S. imports of palm oil more than doubled between 2005 and 2012. The import projection for this year is in line with 2013, about 2.7 billion pounds.
But is it bad for you?
The threats to the Earth and its living creatures (including us) come on multiple levels. The cutting and burning of trees and plant life not only releases carbon into the atmosphere but removes the function of that multilayered life system, which has evolved over millions of year, from taking in carbon and releasing oxygen.
Rain forests are considered carbon sinks, a natural system that absorbs and stores more carbon than it emits, and are critical in trying to slow global climate change.
Then there are displacement of indigenous people and animal life. While the orangutan is the hallmark species for the damage done in Indonesia, the conversion of the diverse rain forest into the monocultures of palm trees, acacias and beef cattle displaces a full range of animal life.
But as an overwhelming majority of humans have already proven not to take action for environmental reasons alone, add a direct human health element and it’s a game-changer.
The verdict on the web seems mixed.
The oil is consumed in both in fresh foods (i.e. red palm oil) and oxidized. Much of the commonly used palm oil, however, is oxidized and poses health dangers on the psychological and biochemical levels, such as reproductive toxicity and organ toxicity, impacting organs such as the kidneys and lungs.
Experts at Harvard University deemed palm oil to be better than trans fat and probably better than butter, but “that doesn’t make it a health food” and suggested sticking with oils that remain naturally liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and canola oil.
University of California at Berkeley says early research "raising red flags” about tropical oils, including on increasing cholesterol and harming cardiovascular health, was conflicted and “faulty,” but it recommended using vegetable oils such a canola, olive, soy or safflower for regular use.
In 2014, a study of 39 adult men and women of “normal weight” from Sweden’s Uppsala University showed that saturated fat from palm oil builds more visceral abdominal fat and less muscle than polyunsaturated fat from safflower oil.
Dr. Ann’s take
But a local wellness guru with a national following, Dr. Ann G. Kulze, says the data that saturated fats, such as those found palm oil, on raising cardiovascular health risks is “rock solid.”
“Additionally, the data is rock solid that replacing saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats like olive oil and canola oil significantly lowers cardiovascular risk,” says Kulze, a physician, speaker and author of “Dr. Ann’s 10-Step Diet” and the “Dr. Ann’s Eat Right for Life” series of books.
Kulze has never been a fan of industrialized, processed foods and says from both a health and an environmental standpoint “to replace trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) with palm oil is like going from the frying pan to the deep fryer.”
(The Australian government and Australian Heart Association echoed those comments regarding replacing trans fats with saturated fats in recommending against consuming palm oil.)
The health of humans and the environment, Kulze says, is “inextricably linked in a host of ways from pollutants and environmental toxins harming us to loss of opportunities to immerse in ‘healthy’ nature, which I believe is required for optimal physical and mental health.”
Kulze is an advocate for creating sustainable food systems and that without foods that come directly from nature, “our continued existence is tenuous to say the least.”