Palm oil is a "reasonable alternative" to trans fatty acids, according to an independent group of nutrition, medical and manufacturing experts who examined the oil's functionality in food products and possible impacts on consumer health.
The findings, which are to be used as a base for industry discussions, may serve to calm the US industry's historical concerns about the negative health effects of palm oil, a naturally occurring saturated fat.
Funded by Malaysian-owned palm oil supplier Loders Croklaan, a roundtable was organized to examine the issue as the company believed the science on palm oil was more positive than it was historically represented to be.
"We found the scientific data on saturated and trans fats to be inconsistent, and believed saturated fats were better than people were making them out to be. We decided to form an expert panel to look at this and come back with the real story," said Dr Gerald McNeill, the head or R&D and marketing at Loders Croklaan, which was blocked from the roundtable.
The multi-disciplinary panel was moderated by Dr Dennis Bier, Professor of Pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine.
"Mono- or polyunsaturated fats are superior to saturated fat without question. But in some cases, for the purpose of food functionality and stability, saturated fats are necessary," said project consultant and former State Commissioner of Health Dr Reyn Archer.
After examining the scientific evidence, the panel concluded that palm oil and coconut oil may be reasonable natural replacements for trans fats, which have been linked to raised blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. The panel also said alternatives to natural fats may include fats and oils modified by an interesterification process.
"Palm oil and iteresterified oils are the best replacements for trans fats, but we couldn't recommend the one over the other. When needed for the functionality of foods, we would suggest that both are reasonable options for consideration," Dr Archer told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
However, the group pointed out that palm oil has been shown to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and also increases HDL (good) cholesterol to a lesser degree, while the overall effect of widespread increases in dietary interesterified stearic acid on cardiovascular risk is not known.
And due to a lack of long-term data, the group concluded that "the long-term risks or benefits of using natural occurring saturated fats versus interesterified fats in the food supply is not known."
While already used extensively in Europe as manufacturers move to replace trans fatty acids in their food formulations, palm oil in the US has only just started to recover from a strongly negative campaign started 20 years ago and linking the oil to heart disease.
However, helped along by three Loders Croklaan consumer studies in the last two years that revealed same levels of consumer acceptance for palm oil as for other oils, food manufacturers in the US are increasingly turning towards palm oil in an industry rush to replace trans fats in products before new labeling laws come into effect on January 1 2006.
Primary appeals of the oil are its functionality, its long shelf-life without the need for chemical processing, and its competitive cost.
Indeed, Loders Croklaan, which claims to be the nation's leading supplier of palm oil, last month opened a new plant that will increase its capacity by 200 percent due to increased demand for the oil.
"The results from the roundtable will put some of the concerns of the food industry to rest, and many more manufacturers will start using palm oil where appropriate," said Dr McNeill.
Over 26 million tons of palm oil are currently produced worldwide in tropical countries, with the number one supplier being Malaysia - that produced over 13 million tons last year - followed by Indonesia and a raft of smaller producers.
Consumed in a wide variety of food products from instant noodles and crisps to cake mixes and snacks, palm oil has reaped a 28 per cent share of the total global supply and demand oil market. Today, soybean oil and palm oil account for over half of all oil consumed in the world.
And the steady prices born out by the oil are also attractive to the food industry vulnerable to price fluctuations from other popular oilseeds, such as soybeans and rapeseeds.