The scaremongering about palm oil reveals the dangers of blending science and politics.

A viral infographic is doing the rounds online showing the ingredients in a Nutella jar piled up individually (rather than in the final chocolate spread form). Sugar, of course, is the largest ingredient, and this has led to outrage from the usual nanny-state quarters. However, it is the inclusion of palm oil (another significant ingredient in Nutella) that has caused even more faux-outrage. The ‘Nutella jar photo’ is all part of a health scare on palm oil that did the rounds at the beginning of this year – and another example of how even something as mundane as vegetable oil can be the object of politicised junk science.

The story arose because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) produced a report on a number of different chemicals that are produced when fats and oils are processed. All fats and oils have their own particular flavour and colour. In order to make them suitable for use in different products, and to improve their texture, they are processed to remove those specific characteristics, and the processing usually involves heating them. The problem identified by the EFSA report is that once vegetable oils – not just palm oil – are heated above a certain temperature, tiny quantities of some potentially harmful substances can be created. The conversion, according to EFSA, accelerates markedly where the treatment temperature goes above 200 degrees Celsius. Palm oil seems particularly prone to this problem, but every vegetable oil treated in this manner will, to a greater or lesser degree, present small amounts of these problematic chemicals.

The chemicals concerned have very long-winded names: for the biochemistry nerds, they are glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters. Based on rat studies, the EFSA report argues that these substances are genotoxic (they cause genetic mutations) and carcinogenic. Of course, what happens in rats may not happen in humans. Indeed, in some instances, the effects were seen in rats but not in mice, so caution is required.

But should we be worried? The old adage ‘the dose makes the poison’ is very applicable here. When setting or recommending safe levels of consumption, authorities like EFSA use wide safety margins to allow for the considerable uncertainty involved. In this case, the ‘margin of exposure’ was set at 0.5 per cent of the lowest level where negative effects could be shown in animals. To put it another way, you would have to consume 200 times this limit (which takes account of the differences in body weight between rats and people) in order to have an exposure that might cause concern.
However, in some groups – like very young babies consuming formula milk – consumption can be above this very low safety limit. That consumption, however, is still way below the level that our current knowledge suggests could be harmful.

It’s important to note that EFSA’s report is not settled science: far from it. Since the report was published a host of scientific bodies have argued that it is too harsh on palm oil and its methodology needs to be revised. A joint report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation and a paper by the EU’s Joint Research Centre are among those questioning EFSA’s methods and its findings. This criticism has been so pointed that EFSA itself has admitted it needs to look again, and has committed itself to re-evaluating its report.

So what can be done? Well, changing the way vegetable oils are processed is a good start. EFSA notes that ‘levels of GE in palm oils and fats halved between 2010 and 2015, due to voluntary measures taken by producers’. Action, then, is already underway. (Yes, even supposedly evil corporations can identify and solve an issue without the need for proscriptive government intervention.)
What certainly does not need to happen is for governments to now intervene on the basis of the original EFSA report. The science has been questioned, and is being reviewed. Intervention now would be nonsensical. However, it may still happen given the EU’s long track record of applying the ‘precautionary principle’ – ie, regulate first, ask questions later. There is no sound scientific agreement, no consumer demand, no health or technical imperative – and yet, regulators ‘must do something’. The precautionary principle is invoked whenever EU politicians or technocrats want to regulate something but do not have the scientific evidence to back it up. It is an authoritarian backstop for bureaucrats who cannot win the debate on political principle or scientific rigour.

It’s worth taking a step back and examining why palm oil is getting so much attention. Well, palm oil is versatile stuff. It’s also cheaper than other vegetable oils because you get a lot of it from any given amount of land – five to 10 times more than for any other kind of vegetable oil. (Growing all year round in the tropics helps.) Oil from palm trees is used in everything from snack foods and spreads to cosmetics, from animal feed to biofuel.
Yet it is also a product that is routinely criticised, particularly in Europe. The success of palm oil has caused considerable annoyance to the producers of other oils. Environmentalists see it as a threat to habitats and a cause of global warming. Some medical officials think that the saturated fat in palm oil is dangerous, despite the fact that fears about saturated fat have been questioned in recent years. While all these concerns are questionable, they do show that there are different groups with a common interest in restricting the use of palm oil.

One recent skirmish in the war on palm oil was a resolution passed in the European Parliament calling on the European Commission to raise import duties on palm oil where it is linked to deforestation. Environmental concerns about palm oil have been around for a few years now. Converting forest land to agriculture happens as all societies develop – palm oil is no different, as land has been converted to grow oil palm in Africa and south-east Asia. As with most environmental scares, this began with good intentions, of preserving biodiversity and ensuring responsible practices. But these concerns have been blown out of all proportion, reducing discussion to the level of childish ‘palm oil is evil’ pronouncements.

Those making such pronouncements have now seized the opportunity to hype up these new health claims about palm oil. They invoke the precautionary principle, without caring that the science remains unproven and that unnecessary and restrictive EU regulations would have negative consequences not just for big companies, but also for the many poor smallholders in Africa and Asia who also produce palm oil.

The consequences for the rest of us from such regulations would vary. Some are comparatively trivial: our favourite spread might not taste quite as good if palm oil is removed, or the price may go up a little. But there are much more serious consequences, too, like the misuse of science to create scare stories about perfectly safe foods. Europe is still dealing with the consequences, for example, of the ‘Frankenfoods’ scares about genetically modified crops. As a result of hugely misleading claims 20 years ago, farmers in Europe still can’t enjoy the benefits of GM crops in the same way that their competitors in the US, Brazil and other countries can. And if palm oil is hit with restrictions in a major market like Europe, farmers in poor parts of Malaysia and Indonesia will be worse off, too.

Personally, I won’t be losing sleep at night over the ingredients in margarines I would never eat anyway. (What’s wrong with good ol’ butter?) And I’ve never seen the attraction of smothering bread in sickly sweet Nutella. But I do think that having a rational discussion about the food we eat is important. The only thing that’s poisonous here is the use and abuse of science to scare us off palm oil.

Palmed off with dubious scare stories, spiked