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Health. Big Food knew palm oil caused cancer but led a tobacco-style misinformation campaign for years to cover it up. Now the evidence is on the table.

For palm oil, the moment of truth has arrived

Big Food has known for 12 years that the palm oil used in food carries with it toxic and cancerous contaminants. Documents from the authorities and multinational food producers clearly show that the risks connected to consumption of low-quality vegetable fat were known. Those parties discussed possible solutions, but never offered up a remedy.

The documents related to Palma-Leaks were made publicly available by GIFT, Great Italian Food Trade, a web portal available in eight languages, which promotes a sustainable and accessible Italian quality food. “You don’t need to bother Julian Assange, all you need is a quick search on the web to find out that Big Food knew about the risks related to palm oil consumption. Nonetheless, under the banner of more profit, it increased its use, doubling it in a few years,” says Dario Dongo, an attorney and food safety expert who founded the website. Dongo has created a petition to ban palm oil from foods, which already has 176,000 signatures.

The evidence gathered by GIFT is clear. The first notions of palm oil’s toxicity goes back to 2004, when the University of Prague described the presence of toxic contaminants (3-mpcd) in modified foods. After three years, the Center for food safety in Stuttgart (CVUA) analyzed 400 foods and discovered significant levels of toxic contaminants in products containing palm oil (products for children, crackers and candy bars). In the same year, the German Authority for food safety highlighted the need to reduce the cancerous substances in food for children.

An echo reverberated seven years ago on an industrial scale. On two occasions, in 2009, Nestlé’s representatives revealed risks related to tropical oils. The minutes of a meeting organized by ILSI, a research center in Brussels financed by food multinationals, documented the fact that the presence of toxic contaminants is particularly high in refined palm oil. Everybody knew it. But they continued to use larger and larger doses, without dealing with its toxicity.

They even launched a counter-campaign, attempting to rebrand palm oil. The bloc of Asian producers that supplies raw material to multinationals marketed “sustainable” palm oil, with dubious meaning, according to the NGO Supply-Change. The industry countered claims that palm oil causes obesity by asserting that it’s the dosage that creates the poison and that all that was needed was a balanced diet.

 

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On May 3, the European Agency for Food Safety (EFSA) published a substantial report warning that the contaminants in palm oil are cancerous and genotoxic, meaning it causes damage to DNA that can be transmitted to children. For one of those toxins, 3-mpcd, the EFSA set a threshold of 0.38 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, a dosage which, today, has been largely exceeded by the population, especially by children, teens and even infants.

According to EFSA’s opinion, the food industry made a last attempt to misinform, claiming that the processing contaminants have also been found in other refined vegetable oils. But the report is clear: Palm oil contains six to 10 times more.

The industry is out of arguments. After the public relations efforts and investments spent in rehabilitating palm oil, the industry has reached the end of the line.

With the truth exposed, there’s nothing left but to shift blame. The industry points to the Ministry of Health. Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin passed the ball to the European commissioner. In Strasbourg, the members of Parliament are starting to wake up.

In any case, criticisms of the massive use of palm oil in mass-produced foods are nothing new. The public became increasingly mobilized as the harm became more and more evident.

In the beginning, about six years ago, the fight was carried out against cultivating oil palms in tropical countries because of their destructive impact on the environment and on the local communities, who pay the first price of businesses’ profits. Abuses, such as land grabbing, have been well documented by NGOs, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia. The dimensions of the phenomenon seem to be impossible to contain: Between 2008 and 2014 foreign investors in developing countries conquered 56 million hectares of land, an extension equal to the size of France.

At the end of 2014, with the enforcement of European regulation 1169/11, which requires transparency on food labels, it was discovered that palm oil (until then hidden in the label under the enigmatic wording “vegetable fats or oils”) is used everywhere. It’s added to cookies, crackers, snacks. It’s used in restaurants, pizza parlors, fish and chip shops, fast food restaurants and pastry shops. It’s in TV dinners and even in the drinks served at cafes serving “ginseng coffee.” It’s even in many organic products.

The ubiquity has turned attention toward the excessive consumption and the risks related to it (obesity, diabetes and heart diseases). In fact, palm oil contains at least 50 percent of saturated fats, the same quantity butter has but, unlike the latter, it’s tasteless, cheap and, therefore, almost omnipresent. According to the opinion expressed two months ago by the higher Institute of Health, Italians consume 12 grams daily. Children exceed the daily dosage of saturated fats by 49 percent, exactly because of the high consumption of products containing palm oil.

But the rainforests are far away, and saturated fats aren’t very scary. Knowing that a food eaten so much by children contains substances that cause cancer has set, again, the spotlight on the battle against palm oil.

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