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The Dangerous Ingredient You’re Eating—And Don’t Even Know It

The Editors of EatingWell Magazine
Healthy Living
December 7, 2012


The Dangerous Ingredient You're Eating—And Don't Even Know It
The Dangerous Ingredient You're Eating—And Don't Even Know It

By Gretel H. Schueller, Contributing Writer for EatingWell

Camembert cheese and buttery croissants are staples of French cuisine, so you'd think France would be the last place where the government would police fat content in food. Yet, in an effort to reduce obesity, France's Senate recently approved an amendment to triple taxes on products containing one unhealthy fat in particular: palm kernel oil, which is extracted from the palm seed of palm oil trees. (The lower house of parliament still has to vote on the tax.)

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It turns out that palm oil is a major ingredient in one beloved treat in France: Nutella. The French, who love to smear the creamy hazelnut-chocolate spread on toast and crepes or just eat it with a spoon, account for 26 percent of world's Nutella consumption, according to French newspaper Le Monde. The proposed tax has incited outrage among Nutella lovers. As outrageous as the tax may seem to some, the French government may be on to something. Nutella's maker recently settled a multimillion-dollar U.S. class-action lawsuit brought by a California mother who was shocked by the spread's saturated-fat content and misleading health claims.

Palm kernel oil sounds harmless and even "natural," right? And in recent years, it's been finding its way into many packaged foods as manufacturers look for low-cost oils to replace trans fats. (After federal rules mandated all packaged foods list the amount of heart-damaging trans fats they contain on their "Nutrition Facts" labels, many manufacturers reformulated their products to ferret out the offending fat and earn a better-looking label.) Highly saturated fats turn rancid more slowly, so food companies often use them to help preserve taste and texture. Trans-fat-free--and relatively inexpensive--palm oil fit the bill. Its long shelf life and semi-solid state at room temperature make it appealing to food companies.

How can you figure out if foods you are eating contain palm oil? You want to look on the ingredients list: palm oil is commonly found in packaged cookies, cakes, snacks, bakery goods, crackers and peanut butter. (Sometimes it's listed as "modified," "partially hydrogenated" or "fractionated" palm oil, which would indicate trans fats; even if the Nutrition Facts panel indicates zero trans fats, products containing less than 0.5 gram of trans fats can be labeled as trans-fat-free.) Sometimes palm oil is one of the oils listed under the term "vegetable oil."

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But there are 3 really good health and environmental reasons to avoid it:

1. It's High in Saturated Fats
While unmodified palm kernel oil is trans-fat-free, about 80 percent of its fat is saturated, with about 22 grams saturated fat in each 2-tablespoon serving (for comparison there are 14 grams of saturated fat in two tablespoons of butter). For a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, that's the maximum amount of saturated fat you should be eating. Most experts agree that saturated fats raise levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol in the blood. That's damaging to the heart and arteries, since excessive LDL accumulates in artery walls and can trigger inflammation, eventually leading to a heart attack or stroke. (Confusingly, palm fruit oil--also known as palm oil or red palm oil--is rich in a form of vitamin E that preliminary research indicates may help fight cancer and prevent strokes; it is also lower in saturated fat.)

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2. It Could Boost Your Appetite
Some saturated fats appear more likely than others to cause cholesterol buildup in arteries. Palmitic acid, which is the main fat in palm kernel oil, is one such fat. In addition, research has shown that palmitic acid caused mice to become resistant to the appetite-suppressing hormones leptin and insulin, which in theory could make them eat more.

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3. It's Bad for the Environment
Anyone who worries about global well-being has yet another reason to avoid palm oil: the process of harvesting palm oil is responsible for significant destruction of rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia--and threatens the orangutans and Sumatran tigers that live there. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, if the current rate of palm-oil production continues, 98 percent of forests in Sumatra and Borneo will be destroyed by 2022. (Note, Nutella's palm oil is sustainably harvested.)

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Do you avoid foods because they contain palm oil? Which ones?

By Gretel H. Schueller

Gretel H. Schueller is an award-winning journalist and book author. A graduate of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, she's put her masters in journalism to good use. While on assignment, she has eaten backyard weeds, harvested cactus buds in an Arizona desert and made goat cheese in Greece.

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