Concerns Over Palm Oil in Foods

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Posted: 13/01/2017 Print

Concerns Over Palm Oil in Foods

Processing of Vegetable Oils for Food

In May last year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assessed the risk to public health, in regards to contaminated substances.

EFSA help to regulate EU food safety, through scientific advice on any potential risks to consumers.

When vegetable oils and fats are refined at high temperatures (200°C), glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanedoil (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters, are formed.

This process is used during food processing, which means that when products are made in this way, they have a higher risk of having these three substances (EFSA, 2016). It was found that the highest level of these three substances were found in palm oil and palm fats. Therefore, foods that use a large quantity of the refined palm oil, will also contain higher levels of these glycidyl esters.

Some chocolate contains palm oil

Why Are These a Concern?

When we consume these glycidyl esters in products, they can be broken down and digested by the body to release glycidol and this is where problems arise.

EFSA had an expert panel (The Panel) look at the risk assessment of glycidyl esters if they are converted into glycidol. Dr Helle Knutsen, Chair of The Panel stated: “There is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic, therefore the CONTAM (Contaminants in the Food Chain) Panel did not set a safe level for GE”. So essentially EFSA, will not even place a safe level at which it is ok to consume these products which contain glycidyl esters, due to the implication that they are carcinogenic and genotoxic, causing a potential health risk.

What Does Carcinogenic and Genotoxic Mean?

Carcinogenic is defined as any substance that has the potential to cause cancer to living tissues. They affect and damage our DNA, causing damage on a cellular level.

Some things that are included as carcinogenic are smoking; asbestos; processed meats; and charred food, especially meats, to name a few. This doesn’t mean that they are all equally dangerous in regards to their carcinogenic properties but that they all can cause cancer.

Genotoxic is where there is damage to a cell's genetic material, affecting its quality. Genotoxins are referred to as mutagens. These are agents which cause mutations within cells. These genotoxins can be carcinogenic, cancer-causing agents, mutagens, mutation-causing agents, or teratogens (causes malformation to an embryo), or birth defecting-causing agents (Shah, 2012).

Make your own pastry to ensure the pastry has no palm oil

The Findings?

Palm oil is a major contributor to 3-MCPD and 2-MCPD exposure for most individuals. However, it was found by The Panel that the levels of glycidyl esters in palm oils and fats have halved between 2010-2015, due to measures taken by producers in reducing exposure to these substances. However levels of 3-MCPD and its esters in vegetable oils have remained mostly unchanged over the last five years (EFSA, 2015).  EFSA reported that further research was needed to fill in gaps and to help improve knowledge on the toxicity of these substances and the impact exposure may have on consumers.

In the News

Many shop-bought cakes are made with palm oil margarine

So, recently in the news you may have seen that a well-known company has been impacted by this report from EFSA. Palm oil is also found within margarines, pastries and cakes to name a few and so many products which are processed, use palm oil within their recipes, even some that you wouldn’t have thought, including big name brands. (Independent, 2017).

The Panel at EFSA also picked up on the fact that infant milk formula contains glycidyl esters and that there is concern around the impact on infants’ health for those who are solely fed on these specific formulas, and what negative impact they could potentially have.

The Consequences?

In Italy, the country’s biggest supermarket chain, called Coop, have, as a precaution, stopped selling a product because of this information. Coop is not the only retailer to have done this and there are several others who have joined in.

What Can You Do to Reduce Your Risk of Consuming Palm Oil?

You'll mainly find this refined palm oil in processed foods, so by eating a fresh, healthy and balanced diet you should be able to steer clear of palm oil.

It’s not just us humans that are impacted by the effects of palm oil. It's also been a major cause of deforestation and impacts both the wildlife and those who live in the areas which they are now growing palm trees on.

Thanks to The Independent, who shared a link to The Rainforest Foundation UK on a guide to Palm oil to help us make more informed choices

.As our followers will no doubt know, we're fans of keeping things natural, where possible which is why we love this recipe for Chocolate Nut Butter. All you need is the ingredients and a good blender!

Homemade Cashew Nut Butter is palm oil free - click on the image for the recipe

We also have a great recipe to make a Cacao Nut Butter, available here, which is vegan and gluten free.

Cacao Nut Butter – Vegan and Gluten Free


270g hazelnuts

100g almonds

3 tbsp. Lucy Bee Cacao Powder/Drinking Chocolate

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. Lucy Bee Cinnamon Powder


Preheat the oven to 180C, 350F, gas mark 4.

Cover a baking try with baking parchment, add the nuts and roast for 10 minutes.

Next, you need to remove most of the skins from the hazelnuts. This is done by placing the nuts in a clean kitchen towel and, holding the towel in one hand, rub the nuts together, through the towel, with your other hand.

Wrap the nuts in a kitchen towel to 'rub off' the nut skins

Place the nuts (minus the skins) into a blender and blend until oil is released and the nuts form a paste (this takes approximately 8-10 minutes, depending on your blender. You may need to stop halfway through and let the blender cool down).

Add Lucy Bee Cacao Powder/Lucy Bee Drinking Chocolate, the vanilla extract and Lucy Bee Cinnamon Powder and continue blending until smooth.

Unlike some shop-bought chocolate spreads, it won't go 'smooth smooth' because it still has some of the skins.



EFSA. (2016). Process contaminants in vegetable oils and foods. European Food Safety Authority, Chemical contaminants. Available here.

Shah, SU. (2012). Importance of genotoxicity & S2A guidelines for genotoxicity testing for pharmaceuticals. Journal of Pharmacy and Biological Sciences, 1(2), pp. 43-54. Available here.

Independent. (2017). Nutella maker fights back against fears over cancer-causing palm oil. Independent. Available here.

About Lucy Bee Limited

Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.

Members of the Lucy Bee team are not medically trained and can only offer their best advice. Any information provided by us is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.

Please note you should always refer your health queries to a qualified medical practitioner.

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About Daisy Buckingham

Portrait of Daisy Buckingham

Daisy is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition, which is Association for Nutrition (AFN) accredited. She, also, has a BSc degree in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; and has completed an AFN accredited Diet Specialist Nutrition course and is currently studying for a PgDip in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition.

Daisy has worked for an NHS funded project, the Diabetes Prevention Programme; and shadowed a nutritionist in Harley Street. 

Daisy is Lucy's sister and is the Lucy Bee voice on all aspects of nutrition and its effect on the body. 

View all posts by Daisy Buckingham

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