WASHINGTON, July 1, 2015 – Environmentalists are warning of a dark side to the Food and Drug Administration’s new restrictions on trans fat. Requiring food manufacturers to transition away from oils high in trans fat could cause them to boost imports of palm oil, which Friends of the Earth says is a “leading driver of rain forest destruction.”
FDA recently finalized a determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) - the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods - are no longer “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) and gave food manufacturers three years to remove PHOs from their products.
Palm oil, derived from the fruit of the oil palm, is commonly used as a substitute for PHOs in packaged foods. It remains solid at room temperature, has virtually no flavor after processing and is free of trans fats. Palm oil does, however, contain saturated fat, which is regarded as less healthy than unsaturated fat but better than trans fat.
In a recent blog post, Jeff Conant, who directs Friends of the Earth’s international forests program, warns that an increase in demand for palm oil could aggravate the depletion of the rainforests in Asia – particularly Malaysia and Indonesia – and human rights violations.
Palm oil, he writes, is the “leading cause of forest destruction, land grabbing and species loss in tropical countries; when forests are cleared for palm trees, the destruction is a major contributor to climate change. U.S. palm oil imports have tripled over the last decade and are set to keep climbing – leading to ongoing devastation and conflict in tropical countries, like Indonesia, Liberia, Uganda and Nigeria.”
“No advance in health of U.S. citizens should aggravate human rights violations in developing countries,” Conant said in a statement. “The U.S. government should create and enforce mandatory environmental and social standards on palm oil investment and palm oil purchasing.”
FDA has considered removing GRAS status of partially hydrogenated oils for years and food manufacturers have cut PHOs from their ingredients for more than a decade. The agency estimates that trans fat use decreased about 80 percent since 2003 and that a key to the decline was a 2006 requirement that trans fat information be on food labels.
As use of trans fat declined, demand for palm oil grew. According to USDA data, U.S. imports of palm oil more than doubled between 2005 and 2012. The Global Agri-Trade Corp. says the figure is now about 2.6 billion pounds annually. And due to the FDA’s latest decision, by June 2018, the food industry must replace PHO usage of between 2 billion and 2.5 billion pounds annually.
Palm oil market share in the U.S. will likely increase by 0.5 billion pounds as the industry looks for PHO alternatives, a spokesman for Global Agri-Trade said. “So, we are looking at palm oil market size at approximately 3.1 billion [pounds] when the law is enforced in three years’ time,” he added.
More than 85 percent of the world's palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia. The World Wildlife Fund says palm oil plantations are expanding in those countries and elsewhere as global demand for the product is expected to double by 2050 to 240 million metric tons.
International companies, including Tesco of Britain, have committed to the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), which “seeks to break the link between palm oil and deforestation, social conflict and carbon emissions.” POIG, which was established by several conservation groups and palm oil importers, announced in March that Boulder Brands became the first American food company to require its suppliers to independently verify their compliance with POIG standards.
Meanwhile, other food manufacturers say they are committed to finding PHO alternatives. A ConAgra spokesperson said these include canola, soybean and sunflower oils, but the “alternative oils we use depend on the food we are making.”
The American Soybean Association (ASA) wants varieties of genetically engineered high oleic soybean oil to fill the gap. ASA said the compliance timeline will allow the soybean industry to ramp up production of high oleic soybean oil, “which can replace PHOs and highly saturated fats such as palm oil in many food applications.”
Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer already develop varieties of high oleic soybeans, which produce an oil that food companies can use for stability without the need for partial hydrogenation. Farmers currently grow high oleic soybeans in nine states.
USB expects growers to plant 250,000 acres of high oleic soybeans this year, up from 170,000 acres last year. The United Soybean Board’s goal is to have 18 million acres of high oleic soybeans planted by 2023.
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