It’s appearing in more and more goods, including granola and protein bars as well as spreads such as Nutella. But what is modified palm oil?
Palm oil is already mostly saturated to begin with, so why does it need to be modified and what on earth do they do it? Turns out it’s not such a simple answer.
We know that food manufacturers are trying to replace trans fats that have rightfully earned an evil reputation. But in order to maintain the right consistency of the food product they need fats with a certain thickness. Palm oil can be fractionated to get only the saturated fat. Basically it’s just heated and divided up into saturated and unsaturated because they have different melting points.
Saturated fat in heaping helpings is far from healthy, but at least natural saturated fat doesn’t lead to heart disease quite as rapidly as trans fat has been shown to.
So is modified palm oil equivalent to fractionated oil? Maybe, but probably not.
You might wonder why fractionated oil isn’t good enough, and the answer is simple. Money. When you separate the saturated from unsaturated you basically end up throwing away all of the healthier unsaturated fat. That makes the end product cost more.
So is modified palm oil the same as hydrogenated oil? Again the answer is maybe, but probably not. It seems the term is so incredibly ambiguous that a manufacturer could hide hydrogenated trans fat behind this label. At least I can’t find any evidence to say that a manufacturer can’t label hydrogenated oils as modified instead.
They can’t get away from the FDA label requirements here in the USA if it does contain trans fat, but remember they only have to label it with trans fat if it has at least 0.5 grams or more per serving. Manufacturers commonly adjust the serving size so it has just under this threshold.
I know, I still haven’t answered the question. Remember I said your modified palm oil is probably not fractionated or hydrogenated, though we can’t be sure without asking the manufacturer of the product.
It turns out that in most cases it’s actually interesterified palm oil. I actually wrote a blog entry on interesterified oils a while back.
To summarize, interesterification is another chemical process used to generate saturated fats from unsaturated fats. The process is different but the goal is the same as that of hydrogenization: to create firmer fats. Some presume that because interesterified oils are not trans fats they are safer, but there is no evidence to support this claim. As in the early days of trans fats, we could very well find that this unnatural oil is just as dangerous or worse than hydrogenated oils.
My advice is steer clear of any product with modified oils just as you would with hydrogenated oils. Stick to natural oils, especially monounsaturated fats.