The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued a health warning about a common contaminant called 3-MCPD, which is created during the processing of all refined edible oils. This news comes just as we’re getting smarter about the importance of eating a variety of healthy dietary fats such as olive oil, canola and palm oil. So what gives? Is this similar to coffee being bad for us one day and good for us the next?  

I wasn’t sure how much credence to give EFSA’s report. So I did the research and consulted with leading toxicologists. Here’s what you need to know:

  • 3-MCPD is the reality of the refining process. It’s found in all cooking oils including soybean oil, sunflower oil and canola oil. EFSA’s report highlighted the levels in palm oil, which is one of the world’s most widely used oils. But what I found interesting is that Malaysian palm oil was found to contain fewer of these contaminants than palm oil produced in other countries. This is reassuring since about 80 percent of the palm oil available in the U.S. comes from Malaysia, where it is sustainably produced.
  • Look at the risk/reward. If we got hysterical over every new study or report, we’d get to the point where we’re demonizing so many ingredients that we’d have nothing left to eat. That’s not realistic. Balance these reports with the good properties of these foods. The better-for-you dietary oils add nutrients to your diet. Avocado oil is filled with antioxidants. Macadamia nut oil contains omega-3s. Red palm oil is a rich source of vitamin E tocotrienols and beta carotene.
  • Incorrectly using a cooking oil is also dangerous to your health. A good example is using olive oil for grilling. High heat changes olive oil’s composition and creates poisonous by-products. The same with sunflower oil. These oils can mutate and form toxic aldehydes.
  • We should be encouraging people to stock many different types of oils in their kitchen cabinets. Just as we have different seasonings – different herbs and spices depending on what we’re preparing – we should also get used to cooking with different oils. Palm oil is excellent for general use because it stands up to heat, is flavor neutral and has a buttery texture. I keep my pantry stocked with a variety of nut oils, olive oils and other tropical oils. It is important that you do not store your oils in close proximity to heat (in cabinets above the stove top).” 
  • It’s about the volume. Everything in moderation, right? The children whose 3-MCPD levels were measured were eating foods that aren’t healthy in the first place: the ones loaded with sugar, salt and partially hydrogenated oils. 3-MCPD levels may also rise by frying and re-frying the oil, as they do in fast-food restaurants. If we really want to see change, let’s educate consumers to choose and consume healthy foods.
  • What’s important is the sum of your actions. While this report may be getting some people all worked up about oil, it’s not fair to assign blame over your total health to one ingredient. The reality is that most people aren’t eating enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains. We all need better-for-you fats in our diets. We need to evaluate our total dietary intakes and lifestyles. Are we smokers? Are we active? Exercise, quality rest and even a good attitude can all impact our physical wellbeing.    

Background information about 3-MCPD
3-MCPD (3-monochloropropane1,2 diol) is an artifact produced during the processing and refining of all edible oils. It is classified as a possible human carcinogen. 3-MCPDs have been detected in all edible oils and fats but relatively higher levels have been reported in palm oil (~2.9 ppm).

We’ve known about the presence of 3-MCPD in foods for more than 35 years ago. Since 1998, many regulatory agencies have recommended that 3-MCPD not exceed 0.01 to 1 ppm in acid hydrolyzed protein products. These limits were based on several two-year small animal studies with 3-MCPD at doses up to 300 ppm. Interestingly, no neoplasms were observed among mice receiving this high dose.

As recently as 2013, there were insufficient data to assess the potential toxicity of 3-MCPD among humans. Yet, several regulatory agencies and health authorities are now calling for monitoring/reducing/eliminating 3-MCPD levels in the food supply.  

It is probably premature to sound the alarm about 3-MCPD contamination. Keep in mind the big picture and avoid focusing on the little things.   

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