Most vegetable oils are made up of polyunsaturated fats, fats that significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. But beware: some vegetable oils used massively by the food industry contain large amounts of saturated fat, such as palm and palm kernel oils, which can reverse these benefits and increase cholesterol and stimulate all inflammatory processes in the body..
Several studies have shown that the type of fat in the diet has a major influence on the incidence of heart disease. For example, the consumption of polyunsaturated fats, mainly present in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds as well as fatty fish such as salmon, is associated with a reduced risk of these diseases. Conversely, a high intake of saturated fats (butter and other whole dairy products) increases the risk of heart problems due to their increase in blood cholesterol and their pro-inflammatory action. It is for these reasons that it is recommended to use vegetable oils (such as olive oil for example) as the main source of dietary fat and to limit the consumption of saturated fat as much as possible.
Fats give flavor and smoothness to foods (organoleptic properties) and are, by extension, preferred ingredients in many industrial food products, particularly those produced by the junk food industry. However, one of the problems facing the industry is the high sensitivity of fats to oxidation. Good polyunsaturated fats, for example, are particularly susceptible to this oxidation, leading to rancidity that dramatically shortens the shelf life of foods.
To circumvent this limitation, polyunsaturated fatty acids have, for a long time, been hydrogenated by industrial processes; they then become resistant to oxidation and can be kept for a very long time. Unfortunately, we now know that this reaction causes the formation of “trans” fats, very harmful fats that cause cell damage and significantly increase the risk of heart disease. One of the industry’s concerns is therefore to find a way to incorporate fats into foods that resist oxidation while avoiding the presence of trans fats.
Palm oil: 50% saturated fat
It is in this context that the oils extracted from the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) have become over the years ubiquitous ingredients of industrial food. Two oils are derived from this plant: palm oil, which is extracted from the pulp of the fruit and palm kernel oil, derived from the seeds. The extraction yield of these oils is very high and makes them very inexpensive, an important advantage for the food industry.
The main characteristic of these two oils is their high saturated fat content: palm oil contains 50% saturated fat, while this proportion reaches 82% in palm kernel oil. It’s more than pork fat! This high proportion of saturated fat makes them semi-solid at room temperature, a very useful property for improving the texture of cookies, cakes and other products. But the most important thing is that the high amount of saturated fats makes these fats much more resistant to oxidation and considerably improves the shelf life of foods.
Ban products containing palm oil, for your health, the environment and certain animal species
Although the elimination of trans fats by the industry is a positive step, the fact remains that their replacement by palm and palm kernel oils is not without effects on health. On the one hand, like all sources of saturated fat, these oils increase blood cholesterol levels and are not recommended for cardiovascular health. In addition, saturated fats stimulate and maintain the process of inflammation in the body, they are said to be pro-inflammatory. Low-grade inflammation, permanent in the body, will promote all allergic manifestations, chronic joint pain, depression, sleep disorders, and even promote the occurrence of autoimmune diseases and cancers.
In addition, manufacturers are not required to indicate the presence of palm oil in the products, which most often appears under the mention “vegetable oil”. Consumers may therefore be inclined to consume such products excessively and thus increase their saturated fat intake, while believing that the fats they contain are polyunsaturated and therefore good for health.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore the devastating impact of intensive oil palm cultivation, particularly in Indonesia: almost two million hectares of tropical forest are destroyed each year for this cultivation, a ruthless deforestation that has disastrous ecological consequences for an environment that is already fragile and which threatens the extinction of species as rare as the tiger and the orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo.
Whether or not they contain trans fats, it is therefore best to be wary of food products containing fats that can be stored at room temperature for several weeks and sometimes even longer. What is profitable for the financial health of the industry is not necessarily so for yours…