While the FDA’s recent approval of a qualified heart health claim for soybean oil has made some news, there is some question about whether it will resonate with consumers. “Soybean oil is primarily used in food service and packaged foods. You’re not going to find it easily on supermarket shelves,” points out registered dietitian nutritionist Felicia Stoler. And in terms of health benefits, “Most of the products containing soybean oil are nowhere on my radar in terms of anything I would tell people to eat. There are better alternatives, such as Malaysian palm oil and olive oil.”
We should be educating, not confusing, consumers
Consumers have long been confused by conflicting or incomplete nutritional information. “People see a headline or a one-minute news story and blow it out of proportion,” says Stoler. “Adding soybean oil is not going to change their lives if they don’t also reduce stress, exercise and eat a healthy diet.”
She says education is needed to teach consumers about eating balanced sources of nutrients. “We need to be careful about our fat ratios, such as omega-3 to omega-6. We get so much omega-6 in our diets, which is inflammatory, because people don’t realize they are getting it. Not because the food contains soybean oil, but because it’s synthetic food, such as non-dairy creamers. Most of those are just soybean oil and high fructose sugar.”
Stoler explains that one of the biggest areas of confusion is saturated fat. “People are still over-consuming protein. And while most of us now understand that eating heavy amounts of animal fats is not good for us, many are not aware that plant-based saturated fats are not the same as animal fat. Lard and Malaysian palm oil are two different things. They aren’t equal in terms of their nutritional and health impact.”
Palm oil is growing in popularity and it is used in commercial food applications to replace trans fats. “It contains a balanced ratio of unsaturated and saturated fatty acids. It is extracted using a pressing process, similar to that used for olive oil.”
She points out that Malaysia is the first country to certify the sustainability of its palm oil. Under this mandatory program, all Malaysian palm oil producers must be certified by January 1, 2020. “In terms of inherent sustainability, palm oil is stronger than soybean oil.” Oil palm trees produce fruit for 30 years. The plantations provide a stable home for Malaysia’s abundant wildlife population. In contrast, soybeans are planted and harvested annually, with significant energy inputs necessary for their yield.
Stoler concludes that the food industry should be mindful about meeting consumer demand but doing so with clear, well-documented messaging. “We have created so much anxiety around food that people are confused. They hear mixed messages about what they should be eating. Health claims seem to change often. Instead of confusing consumers, let’s help them make sense of all this information so that they can make smarter decisions about their diets.”
Additional information about Malaysia’s sustainability certification program, and about the health benefits of palm oil, can be found.
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