Is reformulation forced by Ukraine sunflower shortage making foods unhealthier?

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

An unintended consequence of substituting sunflower oil for another vegetable oil is that it could alter the nutritional profile of food products – and not always for the better. GettyImages/Yuji Kotani
An unintended consequence of substituting sunflower oil for another vegetable oil is that it could alter the nutritional profile of food products – and not always for the better. GettyImages/Yuji Kotani

Related tags: Sunflower oil, Ukraine-Russia conflict, Palm oil, Coconut oil

Have food products’ nutritional profiles been negatively impacted by the substitution of sunflower oil – currently in short supply – for coconut and palm oil?

Russia has now been at war with Ukraine for over three months. From price hikes to food insecurity, its impacts on the food sector are far-reaching.

For food formulators, perhaps the most significant lies in the current shortage of sunflower oil, which is driving some to replace the ingredient with alternative vegetable oils.

What impact could oil substitution have on nutritional labelling scores, such as Nutri-Score and the UK’s traffic light scheme? Is swapping out sunflower for coconut or palm oil making food ‘unhealthier’?

Reformulation driven by sunflower oil shortage

Ukraine is a significant agricultural player. Considered the ‘breadbasket’ of Europe, the country dedicates 70% of its land to farming and produces important quantities of sunflower, corn, soybeans, wheat, and barley.

Amongst these crops, Ukraine is best known for its cultivation of sunflower seeds. According to Statista, in the 2021/2022 crop year the country had the highest production volume of sunflower seeds in the world – an estimated 17.5m metric tons.

Understandably, the cultivation, production, and trade of oilseeds in Ukraine have been significantly disrupted of late. As a result, food makers across the bloc being unable to obtain the quantity of sunflower oil required for product recipes.

In Sweden, for example, crisp maker OLW has started replacing some of the sunflower oil in its production with palm oil. In the UK, frozen food retailer Iceland Foods is doing the same.

According to French consumer group Que Choisir, products likely to be impacted by the sunflower oil shortage​ include edible oils that comprise sunflower oil; margarine; and foods cooked, breaded or fried in oil, such as crisps or breaded fish.

Other food products that could be impacted include those that contain lecithin or sunflower seeds, such as cookies and cakes or ready meals.

The negative impact of sunflower substitutes on Nutri-Score

An unintended consequence of substituting sunflower oil for another vegetable oil is that it could alter the nutritional profile of food products – and not always for the better.

The vast majority of substitutions have seen sunflower oil swapped out for rapeseed oil, which Que Choisir believes is good news for consumers: rapeseed is a ‘healthier’ vegetable oil due to its lower saturated fat content.

Indeed, rapeseed oil contains less than half the saturated fat content (6%) of sunflower oil (13%).

However, as has been seen with OLW, Iceland, and others, rapeseed oil is not always the substitute of choice. Palm oil, which contains 49% saturated fat, is a popular ingredient in food formulation due to its neutral properties: processed palm oil is both odourless and colourless.

Coconut oil has an even higher saturated fat content of 87g per 100g, making it highly resistant to oxidation at high heat. As a result, it is considered suitable for high-heat cooking methods.

sunflower oil alexxx1981
In Europe, a shortage of sunflower oil is forcing food formulators to rethink product recipes. GettyImages/alexxx1981

In France, Que Choisir is concerned about the saturated fatty acid profiles of reformulated products on-shelf. In comparing old and new recipes, the consumer group has identified potential changes to an array of products’ Nutri-Score ratings.

Nutri-Score ranks foods from -15 for the ‘healthiest’ products to +40 for those that are ‘less healthy’. On the basis of this score, the product receives a letter with a corresponding colour code: from dark green (A) to dark red (F).

In the savoury grocery category, Que Choisir noted that Old El Paso has replaced sunflower oil in its Taco Shell Kit with palm oil, resulting in a Nutri-Score decline from C to D.

In desserts, Que Choisir reported that Carrefour’s own-brand raspberry tiramisu now contains coconut oil instead of sunflower oil, again seeing a Nutri-Score reduction from C to D.

In the case of retailer Casino’s own-brand tiramisu, the company has also replaced sunflower oil with coconut oil. According to Que Choisir, the product maintains its Nutri-Score D rating, but now contains twice the amount of saturated fats.

What about the UK’s traffic light labelling scheme?

In the UK, nutritionists are similarly concerned about the amount of saturated fatty acids in consumer diets. As it stands, saturated fats currently contribute 12.8% of food energy in British adults, which is above the recommended 11%.

The majority of vegetable oil available in supermarkets for UK consumers is rapeseed oil. Both rapeseed and sunflower oil are high in unsaturated fat and vitamin E, therefore substituting sunflower for coconut or palm oil could have ramifications, inferred the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).

“Coconut oil has become popular as a cooking ingredient, but it is very high in saturated fat. Palm oil is used commercially for functionality, but it is also high in saturated fat,” ​explained Dr Annette Creedon, Nutrition Manager at BNF.

“Too much fat in the diet can be bad for overall health and all types of fat, even unsaturated, are high in calories and provide 9kcal per gram. Eating a lot of foods high in fat can make it easy to consume more calories than needed, and over time, this can lead to weight gain,” ​she told FoodNavigator.

eco label mapodile
How is reformulation impacting nutritional labelling 'scores'? GettyImages/madopile

Similarly to Nutri-Score, the UK’s nutrition labelling scheme of choice could also be impacted by vegetable oil substitution as a result of Europe’s sunflower shortage.

As Dr Creedon explained, the government’s traffic light labelling scheme uses a combination of colour coding (traffic lights) and nutritional information to show, ‘at a glance’, whether a product is red (high), medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugars, as well as how much energy (calories and kilojoules) it provides.

“This can help make comparisons between foods following any substitutions or reformulations that may occur because of disruptions to the supply chain for sunflower oil.”

Nutrition labelling back-of-pack is another good indicator. By looking at the ‘saturates’ content, it is possible to work out how much of the fat in the product is ‘saturated’ (i.e. the fat ‘we should be cutting down on’) and ‘unsaturated’ (the fat ‘we should be replacing saturated fat with’), explained Dr Creedon.

“Swapping saturated fats with unsaturated fats has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and stroke.”

The saturated fats debate

Dietary guidelines around the globe largely suggest consumers reduce or eliminate saturated fatty acids from their diet.

However, not all researchers working in the nutrition space back this sort of advice. At a recent webinar hosted by think tank Competere, researchers suggested saturated fat may not increase cardiovascular disease risk​.

Francesco Visioli, professor of human nutrition at Italy’s University of Padova, for example, agreed that there is a link between saturated fatty acid consumption and increased blood cholesterol, but stressed there is ‘no evidence’ that eating food containing saturated fat increases risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, or cancer.

“There is no direct, real evidence that eating saturated fat is harmful towards cardiovascular disease,” ​​said Prof Visioli. “Yes, it raises blood cholesterol, yes it’s better to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat, but if you eat foods that are high in saturated fat, there is no evidence to date that this behaviour will increase your risk.” ​​

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