Scientists call for greater transparency, “more credible and consistent information” needed on dietary fats
27 Apr 2022 --- Dietary fats are shrouded with insufficient information, as a new study aims to shed light on their nutritional and environmental sustainability impact.
Carried out by Wageningen University & Research and Charles University in Prague, the researchers aim to develop a framework for predicting what the implications could be of changes in oil production and trade on poor and undernourished people and the global environment.
“We highlight several key factors that we need to weigh to guide better choices regarding nutrition, human health and the global environment. Unfortunately, the necessary information is scarce,” Douglas Sheil, senior author and professor at Wageningen University & Research, tells NutritionInsight.
“An important message is that sufficient fat is required to address world hunger and that this is an important goal in itself.”
The study comes as industry and consumers grapple with changes in trade and oil production due to the Ukraine war. It has led to price increases for vegetable oils and implications for the global environment. “As they are relatively interchangeable, we see rising prices among all the vegetable oils,” Sheil notes.
Calls for greater transparency
Efforts to guide and improve the nature of the required production to achieve better health and environmental outcomes remain undermined by inadequate information, Sheil notes. Meanwhile, global demand for dietary oils and fats is likely to double over the next three decades, he forecasts.
“There are environmental costs and consequences of all sources, and these need to be carefully assessed. We know quite a lot about palm oil, for example. Still, we know little about the true costs of replacing this with sunflower or rapeseed, which tend to be grown in less biologically rich biomes but are also much less productive on an area basis,” he concludes.
“Consumers would like to make good choices, but currently, their information is partial and often biased - coming from those with vested interests. I would like much more credible and consistent information on the origins of what we consume,” Sheil notes.
“These systems need to be transparent and fair. They are needed as much for European or US crops as for crops grown in the tropics. We need the nuance to recognize that they are seldom the problem, but rather it is where and how they are grown,” he adds.
“We need to recognize that, for example, there is plenty of good Asian palm oil that should be encouraged and plenty of bad European olive oil that should be improved,” Sheil concludes.
While considering nutritional and environmental consequences, the study, published in Frontiers, aims to explain the importance of fats in healthy diets, rather than seeing all fats as bad. It also highlights that it is not feasible to provide simple conclusions about oils and fats. Not without missing the bigger picture.
”In the heated debates about oils and fats, where many argue that fats should be excluded from diets, we forget that, as humans, we are ‘fat hunters’. About 25–30% of our daily energy needs come from fats. Without fats, we die,” Erik Meijaard, professor at Charles University and lead author of the study, says.
When it comes to finding a balance between the planet and human health, the need for making conscious choices in terms of sources of fat, whether it’s animal or vegetable-based, is underscored.
Animal-based fat has been accused of being harmful to the body, which studies have proven contradictory if consumed in a healthy amount. However, it has been shown that animal fat such as dairy, lard, tallow, and other sources has a higher negative impact on the environment than vegetable fats.
However, plant-based fat comes with implications as well. Geographical areas that have a “fat gap” - differences in what should be consumed in a healthy diet and what is consumed in reality - rely heavily on importing vegetable fat such as palm-, coconut-, and peanut oil.
Previous research conducted on mice showed the presence of vitamin E in palm oil may help boost immunity and liver health.
What’s coming next?
The required steps to achieve the desired balance of fats and oil consumption should generate the required information to guide informed choices. Even though perfection is elusive, considerable improvements are possible. “Especially if consumers demand it and it makes business sense,” Sheil says.
In January 2021, the World Health Organization released a global protocol for laboratories measuring trans fat for the purpose to inform policy decisions, monitor changes, and track compliance with national policies.
By Beatrice Wihlander
This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst’s sister website, NutritionInsight.
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