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Study finds palm oil industry mimics Big Tobacco on health issues

Palm oil fresh fruit bunches in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • A study published in the WHO Bulletin has likened the palm oil industry’s tactics to those of the tobacco and alcohol lobbies to obscure the direct and indirect health impacts of the commodity.
  • The study found mixed messages in the scientific literature about the health impacts of palm oil, not least because several studies have been authored by an industry lobby group.
  • The indirect health impacts were clearer, and included illnesses caused by smoke from the slash-and-burn clearing of forests for palm plantations.
  • The researchers called for a multipronged approach to address these impacts, while acknowledging that replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils in the same volumes would require far more land.

JAKARTA — It’s responsible for pushing a product found in half of the most common food and consumer items, but the $60 billion palm oil industry has largely evaded the kind of public health scrutiny focused on the tobacco and alcohol industries.

Now, a new study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization finds that the palm oil industry is cribbing from the same playbook as the other two in playing down the health impacts of its ubiquitous commodity.

“We need to mitigate the influence of the palm oil and related industries on public health policies and programmes,” lead author Sowmya Kadandale of UNICEF and her colleagues write in their study, “The palm oil industry and non-communicable diseases.”

“The relationship between the palm oil and processed food industries, and the tactics they employ, resembles practices adopted by the tobacco and alcohol industries,” they write. “However, the palm oil industry receives comparatively little scrutiny.”

An oil palm fruitlet. A new study finds that the palm oil industry is deploying similar tactics with the tobacco and alcohol industries to play down the health impacts of its ubiquitous commodity. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Industry-authored studies

Previous research has linked consumption of palm oil — found in products ranging from Oreo cookies to Nutella chocolate spread — to increased mortality from heart disease caused by narrowed arteries, raised levels of “bad” cholesterol, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and other adverse effects.

The new study also warns of a “cocktail effect,” in which palm oil on its own may not be detrimental to health, but could be damaging when combined with other ingredients used in highly processed foods. And the food industry’s marketing of these “ultra-processed” products to children is reminiscent of how the tobacco and alcohol industries target young people, the researchers say.

But the injection into the scientific literature of studies authored by the industry itself has muddled the message on palm oil’s health impacts.

“Four of the nine studies in our literature search showing overwhelmingly positive health associations were authored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, again drawing parallels with the tobacco and alcohol industries and calling into question the credibility of claims in favour of increased palm oil consumption,” the researchers write.

Even for informed consumers, however, avoiding products with palm oil can be difficult. The commodity and its derivatives can be listed under one of 200 names — a degree of tolerance not afforded to other vegetable oils such as peanut, sesame and soy oils, which some jurisdictions require to be explicitly labeled.

“With its inclusion in many everyday products, unclear food labelling and sometimes conflicting information on health impacts, it can be difficult to know how to identify palm oil in foods,” the study says. “Consumers may be unaware of what they are eating or its safety.”

Given the obfuscation around its health impacts and labeling, the researchers say, there needs to be more independent research into the former and stricter requirements around the latter.

Fires engulf a palm oil plantation in Rokan Hilir district, Riau, Indonesia. Massive conversion of forests to palm oil plantations has been linked to the annual fires razing Indonesia. Image by Zamzami/Mongabay Indonesia.

Environmental and labor abuses

There’s less confusion, though, about the indirect health impacts of the commodity, namely through the cultivation of oil palms.

Indonesia and Malaysia together produce 85 percent of the world’s supply of palm oil, but that prolific output has come at the expense of vast swaths of rainforest, often cleared by burning to make way for industrial-scale palm plantations.

“Since the 1990s, air pollution from slash-and-burn practices have affected the health of populations in South-East Asia, especially the most vulnerable groups of the population, such as infants and children,” the study says. “Haze episodes, even across country borders, have been linked to premature deaths and increased respiratory illness as well as cardiovascular diseases.”

Infants and children are especially vulnerable to air pollution from such practices.

There’s also the persistent issue of labor abuses in the palm oil industry, particularly in Indonesia, where the use of child labor remains a concern, the researchers write.

The study says palm oil’s health impacts, both direct and indirect, need to be subjected to greater scrutiny, given an anticipated boom in demand for the commodity to replace trans fats that the WHO hopes to eliminate from the global food supply by 2023.

A range of food products for sale at a supermarket – mainly cakes, bread, and other baked goods, many of them containg a surprising amount of Palm Oil. © WWF / Richard Stonehouse

Industry response

Supporters of the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia have roundly criticized the study, saying it fails to present a balanced picture.

In Indonesia, a group of researchers affiliated with the industry said the study didn’t attempt to weigh the benefits of palm oil against its shortcomings. They also said that none of the study’s authors — Kadandale, along with Robert Marten of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and Richard Smith of the University of Exeter’s College of Medicine and Health — were palm oil scientists. They added it wasn’t clear if any of the reviewers were palm oil scientists, thus raising questions about bias.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), a marketing lobby, shared a similar view.

“The authors conveniently ignored key palm oil publications in respected journals and cherry-picked a handful that fitted their hypothesis,” the council’s CEO, Kalyana Sundram, said as reported in the Malaysian daily The Star.

The Malaysian Estate Owners’ Association (MEOA), which represents plantation owners, also called the study biased for scrutinizing palm oil in isolation without comparing it to more than a dozen other vegetable oils and animal fats.

“Since WHO highlighted palm oil’s impact on planetary health (deforestation, loss of biodiversity and pollution), it should also publish an unbiased comparison of how all the 17 major oils and fats fare in these regards,” the MEOA said as reported in The Edge Financial Daily.

“This will be of great assistance to nutritionists and environmentalists globally and also allow consumers to make an informed opinion. A study picking on palm oil alone does not do justice to WHO’s reputation and compromises its integrity,” it said.

Global demand for products like palm oil is responsible for depleting tropical forest cover, with often grave health consequences for local communities. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Implications

For all the criticism that surrounds palm oil, there’s a growing recognition that promoting any of the other vegetable oil alternatives to replace it would be even worse for the environment, given the high per-hectare yields of palm compared to soy, rapeseed or other oil crops.

The authors of the new study acknowledge as much, suggesting that producing oil from these other crops in the same volumes as palm oil today would require far more land. This echoes the findings of a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which last year warned that existing vegetable oils that could theoretically replace palm oil would be far more damaging to the environment because of the need for up to nine times as much land to produce the same amount of oil.

“[W]e need to carefully consider practical policy options and their implications,” Kadandale and colleagues write. “Policymakers may therefore need to consider ways to reduce the demand for oils more specifically and for unhealthy ultra-processed foods more broadly.”

The study calls for more independent and comprehensive research into palm oils health impacts and the “cocktail effect”; scaling back the industry’s influence on public health policies and programs; and tackling the environmental and labor abuses associated with oil palm plantations.

 

Banner image:  Palm oil fresh fruit bunches in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.