Palm Oil Scandal in Iran’s Milk; Much Ado About Nothing?

Well, I had hoped for more rosy messages about life in Iran, it has to be said. But what with carcinogenic tap water and toxic fish, oh, and earthquakes, it seems there are also some warnings to be attached to life here.
The latest one is milk; a recent scandal has seen milk sales across the country plummet.

This blog posting asks ‘why?’.

Happy enough until now with what seemed like a dairy industry of international standard (the Iranian yoghurt is bloody good), we recently discovered that the dairy industry in Iran suffers, as with all private enterprise concerns the world over, from greed and shortcuts. There really are a lot of activities that cannot be trusted to the private sector and, in Iran, where quality and health checking are below par, that is proved so again.

In early August 2014, the news was broken that the Iranian Health Ministry had uncovered a nationwide scandal. Involving most major dairy producers in Iran, the scandal entails the addition of palm oil to dairy milk to boost its fat content. What is being sold as full fat milk, is only full fat if you don’t expect that fat to come from the cow.

The palm oil debate rages around the world; Google or Bing it and you will soon see.

In this debate, there seem to be two major areas of concern, health and environmental, and of course numerous defenders of the oil against both concerns. The adding of palm oil to milk, and not advising it, is serious on several levels; environmental, health, regulatory failure, and dishonesty. Let’s walk through these areas one by one.

But first, what is palm oil? And how is it used?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil widely used by food manufacturers globally across an extensive range of products. It is used in some products to enhance texture and to bond (emulsify) the ingredients or, as in the case of the Iranian dairy industry, to provide more fat content.

It has been used for centuries in food preparation, particularly in the tropics where palms grow naturally. The oil, extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, enjoys widespread popularity in processed foods because it is free of artery-clogging trans fats and rich in natural antioxidants, including vitamins A and E.

The politics of palm oil are also a complication, as it is something of a north-south issue. While there is major usage in areas that naturally grow palm, in Southeast Asia for example, most major palm oil suppliers are in the developing world (Malaysia and Indonesia together produce some 85% of the world’s palm oil). These developing countries, strongly reliant on this post-2006 boom in sales, then ship to food producers worldwide, notably in developed countries.

The world is ravenous for palm oil, and demand rises continually despite any health and environmental concerns. One source mentioned that one day quite soon, 10% of Indonesia’s land will be oil palm plantations.
Global production of palm oil doubled in the 2000s and is expected to double again by the end of this decade. While in Asia palm oil is used for cooking, in a number of places it is used – not without serious concerns as well – as feedstock for bio-fuel. In the developed world more broadly, however, the burgeoning demand can be put down to two things; it is used EVERYWHERE, and the trans-fats debate in the west sent everyone scurrying for a substitute. And that substitute was palm oil.

When I say it is found everywhere, this is so literally true. It is used as an ingredient not just in foods and health and beauty products, but in the ingredients that make up those products — vitamin A palmitate, sodium laurel sulfate (as an aside, called SLS, sodium lauryl sulfate is a detergent and MAJOR cause of chronic mouth ulcers – if you suffer like I do, check your toothpaste for SLS!), stearic acid and so on. Indeed, if you use a product that has palm oil derivatives in it, and that is the vast majority of households, you will not even know you are using palm oil; it will say Vitamin A, for example, not palm oil.

So, there are countless ways in which palm oil sneaks into your house. Margarine, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, ice cream, lipstick, toothpaste, soap, pretty much all candy, contain palm oil. It is so pervasive in the products we put in and on our bodies that it’s virtually impossible to avoid it, no matter how hard we might try.

It is very often found in products labeled ‘fresh milk’ – as is the problem in Iran where the milk being boosted is still labelled pure, fresh milk; check the labels closely and you might find milk fats added. There is your palm oil.It is added instead of cream. Why? Because cream is expensive, and palm oil is not. Adding palm oil in place of fresh cream is, in a word, cheating you.

In many other places, such as the UK, the palm oil gets into the system as supplements (Mulac, etc) in the feed of the cow, boosting fat production in the animal. Either way, the palm oil is there.

Even soy milk, I hear vegans asking? Yes, even pretty much all brands of soy milk contain palm oil to bulk up the fats.

So, it is everywhere. Does that make it good? As I said, there are concerns.

Let’s walk through them.

Environmental Concerns

Much concern over palm oil and its burgeoning use is environmental. Chocolate maker Cadbury, for example, removed palm oil from its Dairy Milk recipe in New Zealand in response to environmental complaints from consumers. (Cadbury did not, you should note, remove it anywhere else they produce chocolate; only in local response to local complaints).

Palm oil is one of the planet’s most destructive ingredients. It is largely responsible for the massive deforestation of Borneo, and threatens habitats that include those of endangered and threatened species including orangutans and tigers. Companies slash, burn and bulldoze rainforest to plant uniform rows of oil palm trees, reducing biodiversity, threatening species, driving up greenhouse gas emissions, and destroying the livelihoods of local subsistence farmers.

On the environmental issues associated with palm oil, there is an industry has grown up around the ‘sustainable’ oil palm business, and many major food brands are now crowing about the rainforest-friendly palm oil sources they use, such as Fonterra’s claim that where possible they now use certified sustainable palm oil through the Green Palm™ scheme. How much of that is true, and how much simple PR, nobody can really answer reliably.

One thing is logically certain; if milk producers in Iran are adding palm oil underhandedly, the odds they are using ‘green’ palm oil are microscopic. The palm oil being used in Iran’s milk industry is – because its use is illicit in the first place – is pretty close to certainly environmentally damaging palm oil, not the ‘eco-friendly’ stuff.

But, if it is so all-pervasive in our lives, is the addition of palm oil to the milk supply a real health concern? What impact does palm oil have on our health?

Health Concerns

Heart Disease Risk – Could Increase Cholesterol Levels
While palm oil has no trans-fats (and so the food industry giants jumped on it as a substitute), it does contain high levels of saturated fats, which increases your risk of heart disease as it encourages the buildup of plaque in your arterial walls.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that palm oil is second only to soybean oil in terms of worldwide popularity as a food oil. The use of palm oil in processed foods, its most widespread application in the United States, jumped sharply after government authorities took aggressive steps to reduce the trans fat content in processed foods.

In a 2005 report entitled “Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife,” the Center conceded that palm oil is less harmful than partially hydrogenated soybean oil, but it points out that it “is still considerably less healthful than other vegetable oils.” In support of its warnings about the dangers of palm oil, the center cites two meta-analyses that show that palm oil raises blood cholesterol levels. Further, a 1997 British analysis evaluated 147 human trials and concluded that palmitic acid, an active ingredient in palm oil, raised total blood cholesterol levels. A Dutch analysis, released in 2003, weighed data from 35 clinical studies and found that palmitic acid significantly increased the ratio of total cholesterol to so-called “good cholesterol,” a widely recognized risk factor for heart disease.

And sadly, more recent studies find that the jump to palm oil by the food industry was a little kneejerk and not very well founded. It was not necessarily better than trans fats – it was just really, really cheap, and free from criticism.

In 2006, the US’ FDA started requiring that trans-fats be listed on nutrition labels. Because of that requirement — and outright bans on trans-fats — many food manufacturers and restaurants have stopped using trans-fat and sought alternatives. One of them is palm oil. It’s less saturated than butter and contains no trans-fat per se. But just because it’s not as bad as trans-fat does not make it good.

A 2009 study by the USDA/Agricultural Research Service examined the impact on heart disease risk from trans-fats, palm oil, canola oil, and soybean oil. The findings suggest that consuming any diets enriched with equivalent high amounts of palm oil or partially hydrogenated soybean oil would result in similar (to trans-fats) unfavorable levels of LDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B (a protein, attached to fat particles, that carries bad cholesterol throughout the bloodstream). That’s when compared to consuming either of the diets enriched with canola and soybean oils high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, respectively. The results suggest – some 7-8 years after the food industry jumped to using it – that palm oil would not be a good substitute for trans-fats by the food industry, the USDA authors wrote.

According to Harvard nutrition experts, however, palm oil is better than trans-fat shortenings and probably even a better choice than butter — but vegetable oils that are naturally liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and canola oil, should still be your first choice.

So, palm oil is not good for you for any  number of reasons, but in particular for heart disease.

Can Cause Weight Gain
Palm oil naturally contains palmitic acid, a fatty acid that may increase your chances of weight gain and obesity. A 2005 issue of the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” included a study on the overall effects of a diet high in palmitic acid in healthy young adults. The study found that an increase in palmitic acid intake led to lower fat oxidation rates and a decrease in metabolism. As a result, researchers concluded that a diet high in palmitic acid may increase the chances of obesity and insulin resistance.

Can Cause Toxicity
In a study published in a 1999 issue of “Plant Foods for Human Nutrition,” three Nigerian biochemistry researchers extol some of the nutrients found in fresh palm oil, but point out that the oil in an oxidized state can threaten physiological and biochemical functions of the body. They acknowledge that manufacturers of processed foods oxidize palm oil in their products for a variety of culinary purposes, meaning that much of the palm oil consumers eat is in an oxidized state. The dangers of oxidized palm oil include organotoxicity of the heart, kidney, liver and lungs, as well as reproductive toxicity, the researchers claim. Additionally, they note, oxidized palm oil can cause an increase in free fatty acids, phospholipids and cerebrosides. Now, I do not know what all of that means, but it looks bad for palm oil.

Despite the health issues related to palm oil, and saturated fats, if you want to read more about the technical (read: scientific) reasons the milk industry might defend adding palm oil to milk, read this:

The milk industry does, in many places, argue for palm oil as a necessary additive. If you want to pursue the reasons for that, read this:

Regulatory failure

The health authorities in Iran have announced the scandal. While falling short of announcing what they will do about it, they have said they have taken it to the President. What comes of that nobody can answer, but one hopes action follows.
In the failure of regulation, the price is initially paid by the consumer through health and safety. However, long term the price for failure is paid by the industry guilty of the breaches, in this case the dairy industry. People need and want dairy, but as the complete sinking of milk sales this last fortnight demonstrates, people will look elsewhere for their milk if they cannot trust the ‘Made in Iran’ on the milk bottle.

As the Iranian Health Ministry itself points out, serious health concerns in Iran at present include osteoporosis, calcium deficiency in children, and vitamin D deficiency. Half the women and girls in Iran, and a third of Iranian men, are suffering these ailments).

These are not societal health problems – and societal health costs – that can easily be solved without complete faith in the dairy industry.

Dishonesty in the Food Industry

Truth in labeling is something that has come up in this blog before, notably in relation to bottled water where almost all suppliers in Iran were found to be dishonest – or at least inaccurate – in their labeling as to mineral content.
And of course, I hear you say, milk already has saturated fats as does palm oil. Naturally, this is why it is used as an additive.

But not making consumers aware that they are drinking palm oil-boosted milk is where there is fault. It is one of honesty.

What this new milk scandal says about food quality and standards in Iran is that neither labeling, nor the regulatory agencies, can be trusted to provide guarantees about food quality and safety. While the Health Ministry has blamed sanctions for the dairies adding palm oil to boost fat content, it is hard to see this as anything other than deflection away from serial dishonesty. Up to 50% of the fat in milk comes from the diet of the cows. The rest are made by the cow itself. So, looking for causes and apportioning blame for adding palm oil, we need first to look at cow diets, cow health, and the number of milk-producing cows, not at sanctions.

Moreover, Iran does not have the advantage of having civil society engaged, or enabled to act, on issues of consumer safety.

The upshot is clearly that food quality and safety regulators in Iran need to lift their game if they are to ensure consumer safety, and restore consumer faith in the products on the shelf in the local.


So, overall, palm oil is not a happy additive to the milk in Iran for several reasons, but not – as announced – because they are trans-fats. Rather, they do – like all oils which are heavy in saturated fats – have adverse health impacts and, in fairness, consumers should be given the right to choose how they get their saturated fats in their diets.

Consumers should also be able to trust ‘pure, fresh milk’ as distinct from those fortified with other sources of fat, and thus vote with their wallets.

In short, consume low-fat milk, not the full-fat milk, in Iran quite simply because the makers and the labels cannot be trusted to be delivering whole milk to you.

If you have young children, because low-fat milk does not really provide the nutrients (including fats) of whole milk, consider the powdered milk alternatives from Milupa and Danone etc, which will almost certainly (says he with some risk of being proved wrong in time) does not contain palm oil.

The consumers of Iran pay a health price for the additive. Iran’s dairy producers now face a crisis of faith, and Iran’s regulators now face a crisis of oversight. Whether it clogs arteries or not, everyone is worse off for the malfeasance of milk producers in Iran and we can only keep watching to see what action gets taken to make the milk in Iran safer, better labeled, and more clearly healthy.

PS: If, prompted by health or any other concerns over palm oil, you are serious about wanting to avoid palm oil in products as much as you can, here is a neat list of possibilities for you:

Selected Sources:
“Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife”; Center for Science in the Public Interest; 2005
“Cooking for Healthy Healing: The Healing Diets, Book One”; Linda Page; 2002
“Plant Foods for Human Nutrition”; Influence of Palm Oil (Elaesis Guineensis ) on Health; P.E. Ebong, D.U. Owu and E.U. Isong; 1999
“Effects of palm oil on cardiovascular risk”, Chong YH, Ng TK, Medical Journal of Malaysia. 1991 Mar; 46(1):41-50.
“Palm Oil Not A Healthy Substitute For Trans Fats, Study Finds.” USDA/Agricultural Research Service, ScienceDaily. (accessed August 25, 2014).