Why are carcinogens in the food chain evading scrutiny?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Carcinogens in refined vegetable oil: 'It is surprising that the findings reported in the [EFSA] opinion have evaded scrutiny by the popular press,' says food safety specialist, Stefan Fabiansson.  © iStock
Carcinogens in refined vegetable oil: 'It is surprising that the findings reported in the [EFSA] opinion have evaded scrutiny by the popular press,' says food safety specialist, Stefan Fabiansson. © iStock

Related tags Palm oil Food

Vegetable oil, processed food, infant formula and cancer: All the ingredients for a consumer food scare over the carcinogenic contaminant 3-MCPD are there - so why hasn't there been one yet?

This month's opinion​ from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded there is sufficient evidence that glycidyl fatty acid esters – contaminants formed during the processing of refined vegetable oils – are genotoxic and carcinogenic. Babies are exposed to up to ten times the acceptable levels through infant formula and although levels in palm oils and fats have halved in the past 6 years due to voluntary measures taken by producers, palm oil is the biggest contributor for most individuals.

But the news seemed to pass relatively quietly with little mention in mainstream media. Why?

Although consumers are increasingly sensitive to any negative press around food products, there are so many conflicting

vegetable oil, consumer scrutiny, magnifying glass, food safety, label Copyright Franck Boston
© iStock

messages about the benefits of one fat over another, industry consultant and co-founder of the Aurora Ceres Partnership Steve Osborn believes this last message was likely "lost amongst the noise".

Retired food safety specialist, Dr Stefan Fabiansson, who previously worked at EFSA agrees. “It is surprising that the findings reported in the opinion have evaded scrutiny by the popular press. However, it is a complex opinion dealing with three different compounds each in two different forms all with variable effects.”

Last Friday (13 May) the Commission and member state experts met to discuss the EFSA opinion at an Expert Committee of Industrial and Environmental contaminants, where they agreed that regulatory measures to limit the presence of the compounds in food to protect human health are “appropriate​”.  An initial exchange of views on possible options to limit the risk has taken place and the next meeting will probably take place in late June, a Commission source said.

But lawyer and food safety expert, Dr Dario Dongo, has slammed the fact that industry and safety authorities have been aware of these carcinogenic compounds for years but have continued to widely use palm oil nonetheless.

 “Why, rather than working on the 'nearly safe' seed oils - [whose] production chain from the fields to the tank is also much easier to control since based in Europe - the research was just focused on how to reduce the considerably higher toxicity of palm oil? 

“Simply, because the research was industry-driven, and the mandate was clearly to keep production costs the lowest possible, in spite of any well-known risk."

"Profit over consumers' health, profit over supply chain integrity," ​he added.

According to Dongo, the stakes are high - and not just for industry. “The true risk is to witness a wide loss of consumers’ confidence towards the food industry system, including the European [and] national authorities. Which would be a shame, since a lot of work has been done [both] on food safety and sustainability over the last 15 years.”

Reduction not reformulation
fruits palm oil
© iStock

In any case reformulating palm oil out of products would be a mammoth task given its extensive use.

Food manufacturers and oil suppliers focus on the efforts undertaken to minimise the risk; there is no mention of completely cutting out the offending ingredients.

As the voice of the oil processing industry, Fediol's secretary general, Nathalie Lecocq, said: “We can only reassure: this is taken very seriously [and] we put tremendous efforts to understand the formation of these compounds and to find solutions to reduce their levels.”

A senior corporate spokesperson for Nestlé said it has been involved in research to understand how the compounds form and how to reduce them in foods since the issue first emerged in 2006. “We are fully committed to finding further viable and effective measures to reduce the levels of these substances in oils to as low as reasonably achievable levels,” ​the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, minister at the Embassy of Malaysia in Brussels and representative of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board in Europe, Kalanithi Nesaretnam, told FoodNavigator that Malaysian palm oil manufacturers in particular have been working to reduce levels, to the extent that analytical tests it conducted on chocolate spreads - including Nutella - showed products made with other vegetable oils contained higher levels than the palm-based spreads.

Opportunities for artisan oil

Although quiet for the moment, Mintel analyst David Turner believes the “the court of public opinion”​ can quickly change and while it may not be a case of leaving producers no choice but to reformulate, there could be interesting opportunities for exploring alternative oils, at least in some parts of the world.

“In Western markets palm is definitely one of the most demonised oils - from concerns about sustainability and now potential health issues. Yet as an ingredient it is still hard to replace and in many Asian

avocado oil
A market for cold-pressed, artisan oils could open up but this will not meet industry's needs for vegetable oils in food processing. © iStock

markets, which are the fastest growing markets in terms of retail edible oil sales, palm oil is closely tied to traditional foods, so would be hard to supplement.

“Will palm oil use fall for processed foods in the West?  Most probably but only up to a point as it has properties [that are] hard to replicate. However should a viable alternative - both in terms of functionality and cost appear on the market, then palm could be challenged.”

Fabiansson agrees that palm oil-free claims will be a differentiating point - at least for some niche products - that will increase their competitiveness. 

While the technology is still lagging, Turner points to interesting developments in algae oils that could pose a significant challenge to palm oil’s reign in four to five years’ time but this is if – and it’s a very big if, he adds – algae oils can follow through on their functionality claims.

In the meantime the negative spotlight on processed oils means a growing opportunity for minimally processed or craft oils. Cold-pressed and extra virgin claims are moving beyond the realm of olive oil to help drive the growth of rapeseed while coconut oil is marketed as raw. The opportunity for consumer added value is there, he says, but this is unliklely to be of any use to manufacturers that need industrial quantities of vegetable oil for food processing and frying.

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