Palm oil: Health and sustainability are linked in consumers’ minds


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Consumers are concerned about both the sustainability and the health profile of palm oil, says EPOA
Consumers are concerned about both the sustainability and the health profile of palm oil, says EPOA

Related tags Palm oil Nutrition Fat Saturated fat

Palm oil is subject to several consumer concerns – its sustainability and health impacts in particular – but these need to be addressed together rather than separately, according to the European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA).

Speaking to FoodNavigator, EPOA programme manager Margot Logman said consumers normally have three main concerns about palm oil: Health, sustainability, and misconceptions about its production.

“Consumers always link them together. You explain about sustainable palm oil and what can be done, but in their mind, palm oil is already bad,”​ she said. “If you have dealt with the sustainability issue, they still think ‘you dealt with that, but there’s still the health issue’.”

As for production, palm oil comes from fruit that is crushed for oil in a similar way to olives, but she says some consumers think the whole trees are discarded to produce oil.

Single issue focus

Too often, manufacturers removing palm oil in response to these concerns are single-issue focused, Logman says. Those looking to reduce saturated fat content may end up choosing a less sustainable option – and those looking to remove palm oil because of sustainability concerns may end up with a product that is higher in saturated fat.

“It’s very often a single issue that they touch upon. It’s very difficult to combine all the different issues that are out there,”​ she said.


Weighing up alternatives

One major reason that palm oil is so appealing to manufacturers is its functionality. It withstands high temperatures, has a long shelf life and is semi-solid at room temperature. Replacing it with other liquid oils is not possible for all products, and many alternatives, like dairy or coconut butter, are also high in saturated fat. Interestified oils are another option, but if the aim is to ‘clean’ a product label, these may not be a viable solution either.

Even when it is possible to replace palm oil with another oil from a functional point of view, there are consequences from a land use perspective. Logman acknowledges that different types of land are involved in the production of different oils, but palm is the most productive per hectare, accounting for 32% of the world’s edible oil by volume but only 6% of the land used in oil production.

Beyond these issues, Logman wants to steer the conversation with manufacturers and consumers away from removing palm oil from the diet.

“It’s not needed,”​ she said. “It is not that you have a bad diet if you consume palm oil.”

She says that eating a junk food diet – whatever fats it contains – is never going to be healthy; the important issue is the diet as a whole.

“We are singling out ingredients and foods. It seems to help people cope with the information they are getting, but what it boils down to is getting a balanced diet,”​ she said. “That’s the biggest challenge, getting people to understand that it’s about a balanced diet.”

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