It is very common to find products “without palm oil” or “with high oleic sunflower oil” in the supermarket. And it stands to reason that these are better than those that do not carry these claims. But are we right? Are they really healthy foods?
A few years ago there was quite a stir with palm oil as a result of a report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In it, he warned of the health risk posed by several chemical compounds that are very present in this oil: MCPD and GE. These are also in palm kernel oil or fat.
The amount of these compounds that we take is, in general, excessive, which is why they pose a real risk to our health. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that some of them may increase the risk of cancer.
This is not the only reason to reduce the consumption of palm oil. Both this and palm kernel oil/fat contain a large amount of saturated fat. Eating too much of these fats increases your risk of mortality, as well as your risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The media and social networks echoed these risks at the time, especially those related to MCPDs and GEs. At that time, the use of these oils was widespread and they were common ingredients in a wide variety of processed products.
We could find them in margarines, pastries, cookies, sweets, sauces, children’s products and so on a long list. Since then, the food industry has been eliminating palm oil in much of its products.
This change is usually accompanied by the claim “no palm oil”, intended to get our attention. But the truth is that this same claim is also carried by many other products that have never had a previous version with this oil, but that try to take advantage of the pull.
The lower presence of these oils in the products we consume is, without a doubt, an important nutritional improvement. However, we must resist the temptation to think that just because they do not have palm oil the products are healthy: it depends on the set of nutrients they contain, and not just on one ingredient.
High oleic sunflower oil
We can find this oil featured on the label of many cookies, but also in other products such as pastries. It is different from normal because the fats that predominate are different.
There are three types of fats in oils: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The first are the ones that we must avoid as we have indicated previously. The other two are called healthy fats.
The Spanish Federation of Nutrition, Food and Dietetic Societies, FESNAD, recommends that most of the fat we eat be monounsaturated. According to his latest report, diets rich in this type of fat have beneficial effects on our cardiovascular system.
Most of the fats in high oleic sunflower oil are monounsaturated, while in regular sunflower oil they are polyunsaturated. What both do agree on is that they are low in saturated fat.
By contrast, palm, palm kernel or coconut oils, butter or cocoa butter are high in saturated fat. When high oleic sunflower oil replaces these in products, that’s good news.
However, sometimes it happens that the product that claims to contain high oleic sunflower oil also contains these other non-recommended oils/fats. Once again, it is not enough to know whether or not it contains a substance: we must read all the ingredients on its label.
The key is in the saturated fats
The absence of palm/palm kernel oil or fat or the incorporation of high oleic sunflower oil are interesting improvements in the products. However, this is not enough and it is essential to choose products with the least possible amount of saturated fat.
For this we must consult the table where the nutrients contained in the product are collected. By regulation, it must indicate the amount of saturated fat per 100 g of food.
As a guide, a food is considered to be low in saturated fat when it does not exceed 1.5 g (0.75 g if it is liquid). For those who want greater precision, these should not contribute more than 10% of the total energy. We can obtain this data by multiplying the amount of saturated fat by 900 and dividing by the kilocalories.
Despite all these considerations, improving the type of fat in a product does not make it healthy. In fact, most of those who use these claims are not healthy due to their high caloric intake, in addition to having salt and added sugars.