Is it safe to eat foods containing palm oil?

Soft margarines packed in a tub or bottle are the recommended choices for a healthy diet. The majority of their fat content is healthy, soft fat. The proportion of hard fat is relatively small, although palm oil is often used in them for a firmer texture.


The consumption of baked products, cookies, etc. which contain palm oil, butter, or coconut oil should be restricted, on the other hand. They contain a lot of hard fat which is disadvantageous to health.


EU is drafting legislation to restrict the quantity of harmful substances potentially produced in the manufacture of vegetable oils and fats. This will ensure that foods placed on the market are safe to use.


Palm oil in foods

Palm oil is hardly at all available as such. Instead, it is commonly used in the manufacture of margarines, as well as in baked products, cookies, breakfast cereals, processed foods, sauce mixes, for example. Palm oil is in the labelling of a food indicated in the list of ingredients as fat or part of a fat mixture.


The relative proportion of hard fact affects the firmness of margarine

Palm oil is used by the food industry particularly for its solid state. In the manufacture of margarines, for example, liquid vegetable oils can be solidified with hard fat. Palm oil could be technically replaced also with other hard fats in food industry, such as butter or coconut oil. This is limited by the higher costs, however.


The relative proportion of hard fact affects the firmness of margarine. Bottled liquid margarine contains plenty of rapeseed oil, and only little or no palm oil. Wrapped baking margarines usually have the highest content of palm oil, as they are harder than liquid margarines. Spreadable tub margarines are probably placed somewhere between liquid margarines and baking margarines in terms of both hardness and palm oil content.


It is advisable to reduce consumption of hard fat

Palm oil, butter, and coconut oil are all nutritionally poor choices. The proportion of saturated fat of the total fat content is 49% in palm oil, 66% in butter and more than 91% in coconut oil. Saturated fat increases the level of bad cholesterol, the LDL cholesterol, in blood. It is therefore not recommended in high amounts in a health-promoting diet. There is also no physiological need for people to eat saturated fat.


According to the nutrition recommendations (2014), the consumption of palm oil should be reduced due to both its high content of saturated fat and environmental aspects. The descriptions of a health-promoting diet in the recommendations for eating to families with children (2016), school meals (2017) and meals in early childhood education (2018) all list palm oil in the "reduce consumption" category of products, together with coconut oil. www.vrn.fi


Favour soft fat

Part of the soft, long-chain fats are necessary to people. Good sources of these fats include e.g. rapeseed and colza oil, and olive oil, as well as tub margarines and bottled margarines based on them, and fatty fish.


The fatty acid composition of the final product is the essential factor when choosing a margarine. Although hard saturated fat is added in tub margarines and bottled margarines to ensure a firmer texture, as a rule the fatty acid composition of these soft margarines is advantageous to health. The vegetable oils contained in the margarines are to be thanked for this. Margarines that comply with nutrition recommendations often bear the Heart Symbol. This makes it easier to choose a healthy alternative.


Harmful substances in palm oil

High temperatures are often used at the purification phases in the manufacture of vegetable oils and fats. This may result in the production of harmful substances, such as glycidyl esters, 3-monochloropropane diol (3-MCPD) and 2-monochloropropane diol (2-MCPD), as well as their fatty esters. Palm oil, in particular, has been found to contain high levels of these compounds.


EU limits levels of harmful substances in foods through legislation

Based on the assessment of the European Food Safety Authority EFSA, the European Commission has decided to set regulatory maximum limits for glycidyl esters in vegetable oils and fats. In addition, extremely low maximum limits are set to infant formulae, follow-on formulae, and dietary foods for special medical purposes.


The Regulation which is binding on all Member States was published in February 2018 ((EU) 2018/290). Products in which the maximum limits are exceeded may not be placed on the market or used as ingredients in food products. Food sector operators are responsible for ensuring through in-house control that the regulatory requirements are met.


With regard to 3-MCPD and its esters, the EFSA’s latest estimate has beenrecently completed and the Commission has begun to discuss what measures are required. It is possible that also these compounds will have statutory maximum values.

Palm oil included in Evira's study

A risk assessment project of contaminants in foods is ongoing in the Risk Assessment Research Unit of Evira. The purpose is to assess the order of magnitude of risks caused by various contaminants. The project is expected to be completed in 2019.


The results of this risk survey may be utilised when deciding on performing a risk assessment of the harmful substances of palm oil. If the risk assessment suggests that it is necessary to limit the consumption of palm oil in Finland, Evira will initiate the required risk management actions.


Can consumption of palm oil be limited by national legislation?

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is in Finland in charge of the drafting of food laws. Any propositions for legislative amendments can be submitted to the Ministry.


Evira does not prepare legislative amendments. Evira's task is to guide and control the implementation of laws in force.