The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announces that palm oil contains carcinogenic substance, which raises potential health concerns. They identified one component of palm oil as “geotoxic and carcinogenic.” This information is critical because palm oil is the most heavily utilized vegetable oils, and many people are unaware that palm oil is used in about half of all packaged foods, personal care products and cleaning products.
In 2013, producers used 58 million metric tons of palm oil, up from 50 million in 2010. Palm oil is popular largely because oil palm is the most efficient industrial vegetable oil crop, making it the least expensive for corporations making consumer products.
In 2016, the EFSA conducted an assessment of three potential food contaminants: glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD). These substances are present in many different oils and fats, although, the highest levels of GE, 3-MCPD, and 2-MCPD are found in palm oil and palm fats. They form during food processing, particularly when refining oils at high temperatures.
Following their assessment, the EFSA released a statement:
“There is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic, therefore the CONTAM Panel did not set a safe level for GE.” ~ Dr Helle Knutsen, Chair of EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM)
As a result of their research, the EFSA concluded that the GE component of palm oil raises a potential health concern, noting that younger age groups with average exposure to GE face the highest health risk, although, consumers of all ages with high consumption of GE are also at risk.
The Palm Oil Industry
Palm oil is used in many household products, including foods such as peanut butter, margarine and many processed foods. It is also present in personal products such as shampoos and toothpaste, and over the last few decades, the markets for processed foods and low-cost personal care products grew considerably. As a result, so did the demand for cheap palm oil.
Producers turned to palm oil for a good reason. The oil palm is the most efficient vegetable oil crop in the world. One hectare of land can yield about 3.7 tons of palm oil per year, compared to 0.48 tons of sunflower or 0.38 tons of soybean oil, making palm oil far cheaper than any other vegetable oil.
Sadly, the cost to producers does not take into account the environmental damage cased by oil palm cultivation, and as a result, corporate giants, such as Pepsico, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive and many others, have played a key role in the environmental devastation taking place in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Latin America and Africa.
Oil palm production is responsible for massive deforestation, land use disputes with indigenous populations, and complete destruction of tropical ecosystems. It is the principle reason for the endangerment of animals such as the pygmy elephant — the smallest elephant on Earth — the clouded leopard, and the long-nosed tapir. Oil palm production is also responsible for the disappearance of about half of the world’s population of wild orangutans.
The most influential companies which use palm oil have yet to make any significant attempt to correct the environmental devastation in Indonesia and worldwide resulting of their acquisition planting and cultivation of oil palms.
EFSA States Palm Oil Contains Carcinogenic Substance, but More Research is Needed
On its own, the EFSA does not have the authority to enact food policy changes. Their research and assessments typically only influence the decisions of European food regulators.
Following EFSA’s announcement regarding potential risk of consuming palm oil, some store chains reacted by pulling certain products off the shelves. For example, Italy’s grocery chain, Coop, stopped selling store-brand products containing palm oil. Of course, certain news media outlets were quick to embellish the story resulting in sensational headlines, for example, claims that Nutella may be linked to cancer.
The EFSA has stated that the level of risk associated with palm oil and the consumption of glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE) is still not completely clear, but in the words of EFSA’s CONTAM panel, they have made “several recommendations for further research to fill data gaps and improve the knowledge on the toxicity of these substances.”
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