Many protein bars manufacturers use palm oil in their products despite it being under the fire for a while. And there’s a good reason why. Should you avoid it by any mean, then? This is all you should know about palm oil used (not only) in protein bars and snacks.

This might be a bit confusing, but here’s a quick explanation for you. There are two kinds of palm oils, palm kernel oil and (crude) palm oil [1]. Both are oils coming from the fruit of oil palm trees, but they’re different products. Palm kernel oil comes from crushing the kernel or the stone in the middle of the fruit. While crude palm oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit.

Now, both of them are healthy in their raw form [2]. To be more precise, as palm kernel oil and unrefined (or red) palm oil, respectively. The thing is, however, the latter very often do NOT come to the final product in its raw form (but there are some exceptions). By its final form, it’s being processed and this is what makes it unhealthy.

What processing of palm oil looks like?

There are a couple of processes, or steps, that are undertaken before palm oil in its unhealthy form is being used in many products. [3] Here, in protein bars and snacks. And generally, in food. Here they are:

The potentially unhealthy ingredients in protein bars – palm oil
  • Degumming – this process relies on heating the crude palm oil under vacuum. It’s being done to add phosphoric acid to separate the gums, which are impurities that will be removed in the bleaching stage
  • Bleaching – it’s a process where bleaching earth (activated clay) is being added. It’s being done to absorb all colour pigments in the oil
  • Deodorisation – in this step, the oil is heated and the vapour is removed from the oil. The final product of it is known as Refined Bleached Deodorised Palm Oil (RBDPO). And this stage of processing palm oil makes it (potentially) unhealthy.

Why the deodorisation process might be unhealthy?

And again, as there is a couple of stages of deodorisation of palm oil. The most important for us is step 2. In this step, the oil is heated to a temperature of 249-254°C (or 480-490°F), which reduces the red and the yellow colour from the carotenes in the oil. [4] However, EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) says the substances form during this processing put the risk of public health. [5] Particularly, glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters are responsible for the risk.

The potentially unhealthy ingredients in protein bars – palm oil

Dr Helle Knutsen, Chair of the CONTAM Panel, the Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain, said:

There is sufficient evidence that glycidol is genotoxic and carcinogenic. Therefore, the CONTAM Panel did not set a safe level for GE.

Dr Helle Knutsen

Also, The Panel concluded that GE is a potential health concern for all younger age groups with average exposures and consumers with high exposure in all age groups.

Any good news regarding GE in refined palm oil?

There is some good news regarding GE in refined palm oil though. The Panel’s review revealed that levels of GE in palm oils and fats halved between 2010 and 2015, due to voluntary measures taken by producers. This has contributed to an important fall in consumer exposure to these substances. But still, it doesn’t mean it’s safe and recommended for use.

Wrap up.

The potentially unhealthy ingredients in protein bars – palm oil

There are two kinds of palm oil, unrefined (or red) palm oil and (refined) palm oil. The latter is being used in food much wider, including protein bars and snacks. And this is the one we should avoid, if possible.

Keep in mind some food makers try to convince customers that sustainable palm oil is better than ‘regular’ palm oil. And as it has some indirect advantages, it’s not any more healthy eventually. You can read more about it here.