The World Health Organization (WHO)’s COVID-19 response has put the Geneva-based institution under considerable international pressure – for good reason.
After receiving the recent ire of U.S. President Donald Trump, who intends to withhold funding of the WHO, the organization now finds itself in the spotlight for providing poor nutritional guidance to consumers during the lockdown.
The WHO recommends to “consume unsaturated fats (e.g. found in fish, avocado, nuts, olive oil, soy, canola, sunflower and corn oils) rather than saturated fats (e.g. found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oils, cream, cheese, ghee and lard).”
This is simply inaccurate, and is highly misleading and irresponsible at a time of significant food insecurity and panic across the world. The below scientific studies and experts make clear that the WHO’s rhetoric is not supported by the science.
This is a missed opportunity. The WHO should be talking about the health benefits of palm oil and saturated fats, at a time when it urges the public to avoid dangerous trans fats. Palm oil contains no trans fats and is therefore an incredibly healthy and natural replacement for such products. Palm oil offers a good balance of 50% saturated / 50% unsaturated fats, and contains essential vitamins A and E that provide invaluable nutrition and calories to some of the poorest communities across the developing world. Even the bleach, and deodorize (RBD) palm olein, or the cooking oil that is traded in the market, has lower saturated fats than the unprocessed crude palm oil (CPO). When it is consumed as part of a balanced diet, a study has confirmed that palm oil does not have any incremental risk for cardiovascular disease.
We invite the WHO to look at multiple scientific studies that outline the health benefits of palm oil. This is the science the WHO should be following:
- Dr Rajiv Chowdhury, Senior Research Associate, University of Cambridge “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”
- Dr Jean Graille, Head of Lipid Sciences, CIRAD “Palm oil is a natural product that does not cause health problems, given its unique chemical structure. Furthermore, palm oil contains Vitamin E and is the most significant source of tocotrienols, which offer protection against cancer and are pro-Vitamin A.”
- Prof. Bernard Guy-Grand, Member of the Scientific Panel, French Food & Health Foundation “The substitution of palm oil may be an unfavourable option if it leads to an increase in the intake of trans fatty acids in the case where vegetable fat is substituted with partially hydrogenated trans fatty acids.”
- Dr Elena Fattore, Head of Environmental Risk Unit, Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research “epidemiological evidence does not support a role of saturated fatty acids, palmitic acid or palm oil in cancer development.”
These studies are produced by independent well-regarded experts.
The advice from most health agencies across the world, about saturated fats, is that you need to have a balanced consumption. What is clear from all global health agencies, including the aforementioned experts, is that trans fats are uniquely harmful. Ironically, some of the oils promoted by the WHO (soy; canola; sunflower) can contain trans fats! Soy and sunflower are liquid at ambient temperature that should be changed if these vegetable oils are going to be used for different food-fat applications. They are often partially hydrogenated which aims to influence the oxidation stability and thermal properties. The hydrogenation produces trans fats that are well known to be linked to cardiovascular disease. Ironically, some of the oils promoted by the WHO (soy; canola; sunflower) can contain trans fats as they are often partially hydrogenated.
Why is the WHO not giving clearer and scientifically-accurate guidance? Promoting such oils, and denigrating palm oil, could lead to worse health outcomes for many people.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time the WHO has taken a jab at palm oil, by promoting policies that are devoid of scientific evidence. Most recently in 2019, the “Bulletin of the WHO” published a scientific paper that likens palm oil with tobacco. The paper questioned the “health effect” of palm oil production where they claim “its production resulting from slash-and-burn agriculture causing air pollution and haze, linked to premature deaths, respiratory illness and cardiovascular diseases”.
The WHO clearly has a rebuilding job to do. The COVID-19 pandemic has been expensive, challenging, and has cost the WHO the support of some of its biggest donors. Many countries, though – including palm oil producing countries – have so far retained confidence in the WHO. However, without an official change, and a halt to the fake science against palm oil, support is likely to tail off. The WHO should be looking to build support for its mission, not creating animosity and antagonism.