In 2016, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) identified that due to the high temperatures when processing vegetable oils two substances occur, which probably have to be rated as carcinogenic and genetically harmful. The highest concentration of these substances are to be found in palm oil, which - different from other vegetable oils - must always be heated to a high temperature, prior to being processed in foodstuff. Because of their eating habits and their lower weight, children are regarded as even more at risk than adults. The AK therefore demands Europe-wide limits for these problem substances to ensure sufficient protection of consumers. Currently, first positive steps are emerging from the European Commission.


The two problem substances, which are created during the processing of vegetable oils, are glycidyl fatty acid esters and 3-Monochlorpropandiol (3-MCPD). They are found in edible oils and edible fats as well as in foodstuffs, which are produced from them. These include for example margarine, bakery and pastry products, sandwich spreads (chocolate spreads, peanut butter), deep-fried products as well as various snack products (e.g. pretzel, potato crisps) as well as infant formula and follow-on formula.


In order to evaluate the immediate danger potential of palm oil problem substances in individual foodstuffs, the AK Upper Austria ordered 15 hazelnut spreads to be tested last year. These consist up to 25 percent of vegetable oils, and in many cases this refers to palm fat. Impurities were found in all 15 products, even if the quantities differed significantly.


Problem substance 1: Glycidyl fatty acid esters

Due to the fact that theoretically, even the intake of a single molecule of glycidyl fatty acid esters may have negative health effects, one should eat as little of this substance as possible. Thanks to a Regulation of the European Commission Europe-wide maximum levels for glycidyl fatty acid esters in vegetable fats and oils apply since 19 March 2018. In order to minimize any health risk, in particular for newborns and toddlers as best as possible, a separate strict upper level has been set for infant formula and follow-on formula.


Apart from that, the results of a Study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) show that producers had halved the contents of glycidyl fatty acid esters in palm oil between 2010 and 2015. Hence, in doing so, they already significantly reduced the risk of consumers incurred due to glycidyl fatty acid esters in foodstuffs. In contrast, the quantity of 3-MCPD in vegetable oils hardly changed during this period.


Problem substance 2: 3-MCPD

In May 2016, EFSA has identified a daily maximum intake of 0.8 microgram per kilogram body weight for 3-MCPD. Following a new assessment by EFSA, this value was increased to 2.0 microgram per kilogram in January 2018 - hence a value of more than double. No negative health risks are to be expected if the daily maximum intake is not exceeded. However, exceeding this quantity continuously, would potentially mean a health concern.


This means in the case of hazelnut spreads that by eating 30 g (equivalent to a portion) a child weighing 30 kg has already reached 28 % of this daily dosage if it eats the spread with the highest 3-MCPD value of the AK test. Even at first glance, 28 % does not seem to be problematic, in the end the amount of the daily intake of 3-MCPDs from different foodstuffs is the decisive factor. And due to the fact that more and more foodstuffs are produced with palm oil increases the risk that the recommended daily dosage will be regularly exceeded.


For the first time at the end of March 2018, experts from the European Commission - with Austrian participation - met in Brussels to determine a maximum quantity for 3-MCPD in vegetable built on the new recommended maximum daily dosage by EFSA. It is to be expected that negotiations will be concluded by the end of 2018 and that for the first time a maximum quantity in vegetable oils in the EU will apply. It will depend on this value how well consumers will be protected in future. For that reason, the AK will continue to closely monitor the recent promising developments with regard to regulating problem substances in palm oil.


Further information:

AK Upper Austria: Hazelnut Spreads under scrutiny

Commission Regulation as regards maximum levels of glycidyl fatty acid esters

Commission Regulation as regards maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuff

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)