The Russia-Ukraine War: Will edible oils’ fryers spill over from sunflower oil to palm olein?

During these past two weeks the world has been glued to events unfolding as a result of the on-going Russia-Ukraine war. The loss of human life and carnage of all things associated with this is definitely not warranted and prayers are said that this conflict ends soon. While the Russian stranglehold on the supply of petroleum and gas to most of the European Union is well highlighted, not many realize that this conflict has also put a tightening noose on one of the major global edible oils used for human consumption.

Indeed, Ukraine and Russia are the major producers of the world’s sunflower oil, accounting for 7.3 and 5.8 million MT respectively in 2020. Together these two countries account for nearly 73% of the export trade in sunflower oil. In terms of overall oils and fats consumption, sunflower oil typically accounts for about 9% of global consumption and almost the entire quantum is used as a food commodity.

This Russia-Ukraine conflict therefore has brought to its frontline some unique challenges for the food industry and its associated supply chain that itself needs quick resolve and solutions. Currently commodity edible oil prices have hit record highs and this is triggering potential risk of unaffordability for most consumers, forced to pay spiralling supermarket prices. Also hit badly are specific food manufacturers especially those in the snack food industry, providing fried snacks.

The rise of sunflower oil for fried snack foods has been a more recent phenomenon. Regular sunflower oil is relatively high in polyunsaturated (PUFA) linoleic acid, which is about 60% of its composition. At this high PUFA content it is unsuited for use in commercial frying since the oil oxidises rapidly and rancidity will set in quickly in the packaged fried foods. 

Plant breeders, using hybrid or even GMO sunflower varieties achieved a flip in its fatty acid composition increasing its monounsaturated oleic acid content from 30% to at least 80% while concurrently cutting down its PUFA content. These high oleic sunflower oil versions are more resistant to oxidation during high temperature frying and were seen as a viable competitor to the best natural frying oil ever, namely palm olein. Moreover at this point there was a massive flight, from trans containing partially hydrogenated frying fats due to health concerns surrounding trans fatty acids. Particularly among American and European food processors the clear and viable replacement fats were of course palm olein and the new high oleic sun oils.

Palm olein still had an edge over high oleic sun oil, with a proven track record for higher oxidative stability, far less prone to developing oxidative off-flavours and being far more cost effective (cheaper) than sun oil. Its supply was also better assured and not subject to, as in the early days, to uncertainty among sunflowerseed farmers about how much of the new high oleic sunflower crop they should cultivate to ensure higher equitable returns for their produce.

However, the one-sided NGO anti-palm onslaught, particularly on palm’s cultivation practices, sustainability and environmental performance triggered consumer resentment against palm and savaged the market in favour of the high oleic sun oil. Definitely this anti-palm oil campaign had a strong impact on food industry manufacturing and we progressively saw a myriad of products reformulated with high oleic sun replacing palm olein and thereafter the advent of more than 2500 European food labels claiming “No Palm Oil” or the French version, “Sans Huile de Palm”

Some ascribed this to another advantageous property of the high oleic sun oil. With nearly 80% monounsaturated oleic acid content it was touted to be among the most nutritious edible oils and was even equated to that of virgin olive oil, also signified by its own 70% oleic acid content. In the fray of these claims, palm olein itself needed to prove its nutritive value apart from its long established superior oxidative stability and related properties.

A series of human dietary trials evaluating palm olein against olive, canola and rapeseed oils, all high in monounsaturated oleic acid content, was by then in the pipeline at some of the leading biomedical centres in the region. All these studies yielded a common outcome. The effects after consumption of a palm olein enriched diet on human (blood) plasma and lipoprotein cholesterol levels as cardiovascular risk indicators was identical to that of the other oils namely olive, Canola and rapeseed. No detrimental increments in these risk parameters was evident in the human studies concluded. These forced the scientific community to acknowledge that palm olein too had its own beneficial nutritional properties and was not in any way inferior to the other monounsaturated edible oils tested therein.

Despite these positives for palm olein, the relentless pressure and anti-palm oil retorts from NGOs and through brainwashing of the lay consumers, palm olein lost significant ground as the preferred frying oil particularly among European snack food manufacturers.

It now looks like the Russia-Ukraine conflict will significantly curtail availability of sunflower oil for various applications. Coupled to sky rocketing commodity prices, it is yet to be seen if snack food manufacturers could continue to afford such escalated raw material costs in their frying fat choices. Market dynamics however indicate this may not be viable and it is likely that food manufacturers will look elsewhere to circumvent their losses.

The most likely solution for this could be their return to using palm olein as the frying fat of choice in many snack foods manufacture. Market forces, particularly in the Asia, Middle East regions are already signalling this makeover. For food manufacturers this would still be an easy switch since there is a large body of readily available data on how best to re-adopt palm olein on its own or in combination with other palm fractions for the fry and snack food industries.

For the European sector, there is just one additional looming issue that needs to be tackled. The large number of products with “No Palm Oil” claims need to make the about turn and adopt palm olein for its well worth and defined qualities in these applications. Well, they would have the task of explaining to their consumers their return to palm oil under these prevailing global events. Rest assured that from bodies like CPOPC, we stand ready to assist in these exercises and to back up every statement about palm olein in these applications with sound scientific evidence.

So strangely, while the Russia-Ukraine conflict has spun the world into more turmoil, negatively impacted petroleum, gas and even sunflower oil supply chains, the solution for the edible oil sector may lie in a reverse to the old ways through adoption of various palm oil, palm olein applications. It seems the ball is rolling back one full circle here but final decisions and outcomes are still waited in earnest.   

Dr. Kalyana Sundram – CPOPC Consultant