Scaremongering in the food industry and the “witch hunt” against palm oil

At the end of June, I returned from Dalian, China, where the “Summer Davos” was held. One of the items on the agenda was the new reality of food supply in China, the world’s fastest growing food market in terms of demand. Domestic production cannot feed the entire country, so each year China begins to consume more and more Western products, which raises the big debate of how to strike a reasonable balance between food security and healthy and tasty food.

Producers are forced to hide ingredients due to the so-called public outcry.

I have discussed this issue off the record with long-time business partners: as I see from my experience and the experience of colleagues, consumer fears over certain products can not only damage a business, but also the consumer themselves. The conversation we had was illuminating, so I decided to write down some of my thoughts.

There is a lot of research and information out there. The truth about what’s good and what’s bad in the food industry is often hard to come by and with so much information, it is often diluted at best. Often, people begin believing conspiracy theories about the evils of certain ingredients.

This has an obvious impact on business: producers are forced to hide ingredients due to the so-called public outcry, because getting rid of them together makes no sense at all. Often the research behind “bad ingredients” is amateur at best. Any article published online can cause a wave of fear, putting the industry on the defensive.

The current “witch hunt” going on in the food industry is against palm oil.

The current “witch hunt” going on in the food industry is against palm oil. One of the most absurd arguments against it is that it has a low melting point, meaning it is not easily digestible and clogs up arteries. Has anyone analysed the melting point of most of the products we consume on a daily basis such as bread, nuts, fruits and vegetables, which, according to the melting point argument against palm oil, also float in tiny pieces inside our circulatory system? In reality, medical research shows that consuming palm oil in moderate amounts doesn’t have any negative effects on health. As with all fats, palm oil must be limited and combined with other foods.

However, producers are forced to conceal palm oil as an ingredient or stop using it because people are “afraid” of it. If there was a general ban on palm oil, then producers would have no choice but to substitute with animal fat, which would lead to the production of “fake” dairy products, especially in cottage cheese and yogurt. Currently, according to Russian regulations, a number of milk fat substitutes can be used instead of real ingredients, including palm oil. A ban on palm oil would motivate unscrupulous producers to start using animal fat, which will be difficult to decipher from fake milk fat. It’s not only a question of taste, but it is analytically difficult to identify. In terms of nutritional value, palm oil is much better than beef fat.

Trans fats are formed in palm oil and all other vegetable oils after digestion.

Let’s move on and look at trans fats, which are formed in palm oil and all other vegetable oils after digestion. They are created during the hydrogenation process, when liquid oils are converted into semi-solid fats. Paul Sabatier won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for this discovery. Sabatier’s achievement laid the foundation for today’s current oils and fats industry, and has helped solve food security problems of the 20th century, while at the same time producing products which taste good at an affordable price. This led to the emergence of the industrial fats and oils industry, as the trans fats significantly increase the shelf life of products since the rate of fat oxidation is decreased. It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that we began to see anti trans fats campaigns, when thanks to research, it became clear that the body’s reaction to trans fats was an elevated lipid metabolism, when cholesterol clogs up blood vessels, overall straining the vascular system. At the same time, milk and meat contain natural trans fats, and our body has adapted to processing these foods which humans have been eating for thousands of years. People at risk of a heart attack or those that have just had heart surgery should completely cut out meat, milk, and other trans fats, as well as many other foods. Of course, a medical diet is significantly different from that of a healthy person.

Did you know that milk contains up to 9% trans fats?

For healthy people, it’s all about portion control. If you eat a kilo of sugar or salt all at once, you will feel discomfort and may require medical attention.
The established norm for trans fats set by the World Health Organization (WHO) is 1% per day – or about 1 gram for each kilogram of body weight, or about 50-70 grams per day in total. Standards for trans fats in margarine and mayonnaises are generally set by individual countries. For example in Russia, where I am the co-owner of one of the largest fat and oil companies, starting in 2018 the permissible amount of trans fat allowed in margarine will change considerably – from 20% to 2%. Russia is one of the first countries to do this, and even before the law was introduced we began reducing the amount of trans fats in our products and investing in a lot of resources and to improve technology.

It will come as a surprise to some, but did you know that milk contains up to 9% trans fats? Butter is more expensive than margarine by definition, so how does one justify its use? Taste and benefits of course. So it’s no surprise that butter producers are so active in pouring oil on the fire (pun intended) in media campaigns against margarine – a direct competitor. And if you compare margarine to butter in terms of trans fat, then the latter contains more. Does anyone mention this? Not quite. But if you look at risks, margarine is safer than butter. Not to mention cheaper.

Palm oil is one of the most controversial examples, but there are examples in the history of the food industry when laud media campaigns seriously influenced business. But I’ll get to those examples next week.

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