This post was originally published on October 6, 2017 and updated on September 3, 2020.
Ever since the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a report warning about the health consequences of co-contaminants in edible oils, Roger Clemens, DrPH, FIFT, CFS, FASN, FACN, CNS, FIAFST, has called for a pragmatic response to this issue.
Clemens is an adjunct Professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences within the USC School of Pharmacy, International Center for Regulatory Science. “This issue is as much about what we do not know, as it is about what we do know,” he says.
GE (Glycidyl Esters) and 3-MCPD (3-monochloropropane1,2 diol) are the food processing contaminants classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possible human carcinogens.
What is 3-MCPD?
3-MCPD esters are produced as artifacts during the processing and refining of all edible oils including palm oil. Their removal from the final refined oil is dependent upon several established and novel processes. These steps are designed to remove unwanted constituents. 3-MCPDs have been detected in all edible oils and fats, but relatively higher levels have been reported in palm oil (~2.9 ppm).
At issue: 3-MCPD has an established Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 2 ug/kg body weight. This TDI level is also supported by the FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives. Thus, the esters of 3-MCPD are of toxicological concern for humans, yet some reports indicate 3-MCPD are of low risk. Several regulatory agencies and health authorities call for monitoring 3-MCPD levels in the food supply, and recommend a reduction or elimination of 3-MCPD and related chloropropanols from the food supply.
Clemens notes that while 3-MCPD was found to be carcinogenic to small animals, no direct human toxicology data are available. “Several investigators have noted toxicological data gaps and call for further research. Thus, there is a need for additional research that assesses potential effects of 3-MCPD on human health when consumed as typical levels over a lifespan.”
Key issues and questions facing the edible oil industry
According to Clemens: “This requires a more complete understanding of how these compounds are formed. For example, the data indicate that fewer 3-MCPD compounds are present in Malaysian palm oil than that which is processed outside of Malaysia.”
“This observation indicates the need for a better grasp of the palm oil process variances among countries. There is a need to carefully evaluate each step and identify the conditions under which the contaminants, such as 3-MCPD and related chloropropanols are generated. There are some data, for example, that indicate the timing of the harvest and pressing, as well as processing temperature and water supply, can significantly affect the generation and subsequent levels of these contaminants.”
Current and recommended strategies
Clemens touched on results of the 66 pilot trials, funded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, on refining the different treatments. “The trials, conducted from 2010 through 2015, found that acid degumming followed by bleaching causes the formation of 3-MCPD esters in bleached oils. High deodorization temperature also led to high formation of esters. Just as the change from thermal to non-thermal processing has created significant opportunities for many food types, I suspect that similar processing advances will materialize relative to all edible oils,” he observes.
“We need to invoke and apply scientific imagination and technical expertise to mitigate contaminants in edible oil,” he confirms. “As important, we must develop communications strategies that demonstrate a commitment to public health and environmental forethought. It’s imperative that the food industry own the real and perceived issues, and leverage the solutions before they are put into a defensive posture that may damage their image and profits.”
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