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What’s your Easter bunny made of? Could it have palm oil in it?

Spirit of Easter, CC BY-NC-SA

It may come as no surprise that fats and oils are part of any piece of chocolate we eat. But the push to cut trans fats from food for health reasons has created demand for palm oil, an ingredient with significant environmental impacts.

The rapid expansion of palm oil production for food and biofuels in the past 25 years in Indonesia and Malaysia has been blamed for loss of biodiversity and land-use changes that increase carbon emissions. About 80% of palm oil production goes into food, according to a web site sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

Palm oil is used in many candies with chocolate, although a number of confectionery producers do not use it or have started to use certified sustainable palm oil. The El Paso Zoo is just one of the organizations that lists candy products with palm oil, including goodies for a palm oil-free Easter basket filler.

The conversation around palm oil clearly illustrates the conundrum often created by single-issue activism and why we must think holistically about the food system.

Before you bite that chocolate bunny

Fats and oils can be of animal origin, such as butter fat, tallow and lard, or of vegetable origin, such as soy bean oil, canola oil or palm oil. Natural fats are generally processed to remove gums, colors and odors. Their solid and liquid components may be separated into their component fats stearins and oleins, and oils may be hydrogenated to render them more solid.

The US standard of identity for chocolate permits only two fats: cocoa butter, the natural fat of the tree Theobroma cacao, and milk fat, which is also known as butter oil.

If any other “safe and suitable” vegetable fat, oil or stearin is added, the product may no longer be labeled “chocolate.” Instead, it legally becomes “sweet cocoa and vegetable fat coating,” “sweet chocolate and vegetable fat coating,” “milk chocolate and vegetable fat coating,” or more commonly known as chocolate-flavored confectioners’ coatings. Alternatively, the common or usual name of the vegetable-derived fat ingredient may be used in the name of the food, such as “sweet cocoa and palm oil coating.”

Most chocolate confections are not made of solid chocolate, and other vegetable fats and oils find their way into the fillings, centers or inclusions. For example, a truffle center might contain hazelnut paste, which is about 60% hazelnut oil, and a peanut butter cup obviously contains peanut oil. In these composite “candy bars” the technical properties of the fat, notably its melting point, are extremely important.

The melting point of liquid oils can be increased through hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids. Unfortunately, trans fatty acids may be created in this process and they have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol and, therefore, may increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Enter palm oil

Consumers have expressed a desire for products with fewer ingredients and “cleaner,” simpler labels. As of January 2006, the Food & Drug Administration has required labels to include the trans fat content. In response, the food industry has sought means of reducing the trans fats, including the use of natural fats that have properties similar to hydrogenated oils and improvements in the hydrogenation process that avoid the formation of trans fatty acids.

The spread of palm oil plantations has led to destruction of rainforests. Yayan Indriatmoko for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), CC BY-NC-ND

Palm oil is obtained from the pulp of the fruit of one or more species of oil palm, principally Elaeis guineensis. It is a common cooking oil in tropical regions of Africa, Asia and South America. It is naturally reddish in color due to high levels of beta-carotene. It is not the same as palm kernel oil, derived from the same plant, or coconut oil obtained from the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera. Palm oil is a moderately saturated fat (about 40%) making it semi-solid at room temperature and a good technical substitute for hydrogenated oils.

Real health benefit?

There is some concern that substituting palm oil for trans fatty acid containing fats, including hydrogenated soy bean oil, may not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. A recent meta-analysis of dietary intervention trials incorporating palm oil concluded that both favorable and unfavorable changes in risk occurred when palm oil was substituted for other dietary fats.

Yet the growing consumer demand for trans fat-free products has stimulated the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations, often at the expense of native forests. This has been particularly acute in Indonesia, where habitat destruction has threatened the orangutan.

In response, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-led organization, promulgated the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil standards. According to RSPO’s website, only 18% of global palm oil is certified.

It seems straightforward to demand that food manufacturers simply remove trans fats from the diet, but in doing so we need to consider what they will be replaced by. Similarly, we can avoid eating palm oil, but what will we eat instead and what effect will that have on our health and the health of our environment?

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