The steps taken by the World Health Organization (Who) to eliminate trans fats from our global food supply are important. However, a key piece of the conversation is missing. What are the alternatives?
Trans fats are bad for our health: the WHO reminded us this week that five billion people worldwide are exposed to the negative effects of trans fats, which the WHO claims are responsible for more than 500,000 premature deaths due to coronary heart disease. In India alone, trans fats are responsible for 60,000 deaths.
The progress made by the WHO is certainly commendable. It has convinced governments of countries representing one third of the world’s population to adopt measures to limit the harm trans fats can cause. It has also won the support of industry to reduce the presence of trans fats in the food supply chain as well as cutting down on salt, sugar, and saturated fat. If plans to eliminate trans fats from our food supply by 2023 are successful, the WHO is optimistic that ten million deaths due to cardiovascular disease can be averted.
However, it is important that, as the presence of trans fats in our lives is reduced, we do not turn to dangerous alternatives. As trans fats cease to be in vogue, palm oil – noted for its high content of saturated fat and associated effects on health – is anticipated to be a lucrative product in the coming years.
“India accounts for seventeen percent of the world’s palm oil consumption. The effect this consumption exerts on ecosystems, both domestically and abroad, cannot be overlooked.”
In India, consumption of palm oil has increased by 230 percent since 2001, from three million tonnes that year to almost ten million tonnes last year as reported by Down to Earth. The growth in demand for palm oil suggests that, even as efforts to limit Indians’ intake of trans fats take shape, other unhealthy alternatives are still available in abundance – even as Reuters reported last year that palm oil imports were hitting a six-year low.
Palm oil is regarded by some as a desirable alternative to trans fats, but that is far from wholly vindicating it as a substitute. As noted by Harvard Health Publishing, “palm oil [is] less saturated than butter and contains no trans fat. But just because it’s not as bad as trans fat doesn’t make it a health food.”
We must also consider the environmental implications of palm oil. Fix.com reports that “an area about the size of 300 football fields is cleared each hour in tropical rainforests for palm oil production.” A mere seventeen percent of palm oil production globally is sustainable, the outlet adds.
India accounts for seventeen percent of the world’s palm oil consumption. The effect this consumption exerts on ecosystems, both domestically and abroad, cannot be overlooked. In particular, palm oil production can exert a ruinous impact on water supply. As The Wire reports, “studies indicate oil palm plantations threaten water quality changing freshwater ecosystems for decades, lowering the water table, which can lead to increasing concentrations of arsenic in drinking water, and adding salinity to coastal freshwater.” In a country already grappling with a burgeoning water crisis and an ongoing pollution catastrophe, appraising the environmental risks of palm oil in the context of deforestation and water ruination is vital.
The WHO’s steps towards notifying the world of the problems trans fats pose to consumers’ health are highly important. However, this cannot lead to a situation where one food component damaging to health and the environment is simply substituted with another. Nutrition policies sustainable both to health and the environment are very much the need of the hour.