Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on Economics

SINCLAIR, Professor Andrew James, Professor, Nutrition Science, Deakin University


Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome, Professor Sinclair. On behalf of the committee, we are very glad that you have been able to join us today. I would remind you, though, that, although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, the hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House or the Senate. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Prof. Sinclair : I am happy to. For the record, I do not know anything about the inquiry, so what I am going to say is not influenced by what might have been in the media or elsewhere. I am fully aware of vegetable oils and their use in the food supply. My background is having worked in a research capacity on fats and oils for more than 40 years. I recognise that palm oil is used extensively in food industries around the world because of two features. One is its lower cost than other possible alternatives. The second is that it is reasonably stable, if you use it as a frying oil, so it is not going to break down.

I also recognise that palm oil originated in West Africa—I am sure you have read all this—and the two areas of the world where there is significant massive expansion of palm oil production would be firstly in Malaysia and then Indonesia. The composition of palm oil is unusual in that it is rich in saturated fatty acids, which contributes to its stability when used in frying. It also contributes to why the food industry might be interested in using it—because, apart from the cost and stability, its physical properties, meaning that it is semi-solid at room temperature, make it suitable for inclusion in manufactured foods. There is a double-edged sword here because there are two things that, say, the Heart Foundation or NHMRC tell Australians about fats. They say that you should not eat too much saturated fat—and palm oil, as I have told you, is about 50 per cent saturated fat—and the health professionals say that you should reduce your intake of trans fatty acids. Palm oil has none of those. In Australia, the trans fatty acid content in use in the industry is pretty minimal.

So what we are left with is a low-cost oil that is stable and meets the requirements of industry from a physical point of view, but it is rich in saturated fatty acids. That contributes to its properties. Food manufacturers cannot make products unless there is a certain amount of solidity to the oil, and the solidity comes either from using oils rich in trans fatty acids, which we do not use, or using oils rich in saturate, which we are currently using.

The last thing I will say is that I am sure that you are aware that there has been huge increase in the use of palm oil as a starting material for biodiesel because it is low cost and so on. Vegetable oils can be used as biodiesel because the biodiesel is made from the oil and it is the fatty acids that are found in the oil. That is really all I wanted to say.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. In terms of the effect that palm oil and its fat content would have in heart disease, that would depend, presumably, on the amount of palm oil that is actually used in the product.

Prof. Sinclair : That is correct, but it is a very individual thing. It is about the total intake of an individual. A person could take in a few palm oil products in manufactured foods, like a muesli bar and so on; but, if the rest of their diet were, let's call it, low in saturated fat, those few items containing palm oil would not be all that important.

CHAIR: So a consumer who is looking to make that balance in terms of their diet probably would not be helped by just a label that says 'palm oil'. It would be important to know what percentage of palm oil was in that product.

Prof. Sinclair : I would think so, yes. They might be swayed for environmental reasons, for example, if they were tuned into that as an issue, but I think the per cent is quite important. Consumers largely buy on cost. They cannot afford to buy on reading labels and health warnings and all this, particularly in tough times. Because palm oil is a relatively low-cost vegetable oil, manufacturers can keep their costs down that way.

CHAIR: But the objective of food labelling in terms of health and safety outcomes is to provide that information to consumers on their health and safety. The point, I think, which we were just agreeing on was that, if you do not indicate what percentage is there, it almost makes it meaningless to just indicate that there is palm oil, given that some products have very small amounts and some have larger amounts.

Prof. Sinclair : Absolutely. But I would say that the requirement to have nutritional content information on food packs where the amount of saturated fat is listed is probably more important than indicating that there is some palm oil there, because it is the total saturated fat that is in the food that is important.

CHAIR: On that precise answer that you have just given there, if food labelling is about the health of the consumer, it is that distinction that the consumer needs to look at rather than the source of the particular product.

Prof. Sinclair : I believe so. I do not know, but there may be more than one source of vegetable oil in a product. You are not going to list every vegetable oil that is there. It is the amount of saturated fat and the total fat in a product that is important, in my view.

CHAIR: That is how food labelling works at the moment, isn't it?

Prof. Sinclair : Yes.

CHAIR: In terms of that health aspect, this bill, if it just seeks to include the words 'palm oil' where that is part of a product, really adds nothing to the existing regime.

Prof. Sinclair : I would agree with that.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Where does palm oil consumption fit into the hierarchy of health risks to the general public in Australia?

Prof. Sinclair : It is very hard to be quite precise, so I will be a typical academic and say that it depends. It is a major source of saturated fat in our food supply, as you know. Dairy is another source of saturated fat, although people are questioning how bad the dairy saturated fats are because they are different. Palm oil is a major source. Therefore, it is contributing to the total saturated fat load that the population eats. But the important issue is the individual behaviour. If an individual is eating a lot of saturated fat and they are predisposed genetically to have raised blood cholesterol, those two things are not going to be so good to the health of that consumer.

Dr LEIGH: Professor Sinclair, thank you very much for your interest in our inquiry. You are the first person, as best I know, in two days of hearings who has mentioned the use of palm oil in biodiesel. I want to ask you a little more about that. When I was looking into the issue, I was unable to find very much information about the extent to which palm oil is an effective substitute for other products that would be used to make biodiesel.

Prof. Sinclair : I am not an expert on biodiesel, but I do know that biodiesel might be a broad term that covers more than one, let us say, class of chemicals. I think some people think of ethanol as a biodiesel—and ethanol typically comes from sugar, let us say—but another form of biodiesel is fatty acid methyl esters. These do not exist as such in nature; they are derived chemically from oils or fats. So if you have a cheap source of a vegetable oil or even an animal fat, these oils or fats are the same type of chemical; they are chemically identical. They are in the same family and they all have three fatty acids per molecule of oil or fat. So a manufacturer can cut the fatty acids away from the oil or fat and add a particular group to them, and that becomes a fatty acid methyl ester and that is what that sort of biodiesel is. So there is a lot of interest in fatty acid methyl esters as a type of biodiesel, and palm oil would be an attractive starting point because it is relatively low cost. That is the case for waste from, let us say, frying oil operations. People have known about that for years—if they collect all the waste oil from the fish and chip shops or whatever and convert that into biodiesel.

Dr LEIGH: Palm oil is currently a component of diesel, say, in a country like Malaysia, isn't it, so I was reading?

Prof. Sinclair : So I understand, yes. But it would be converted; it would not just be the straight oil.

Dr LEIGH: I understand. Are there particular technological breakthroughs that we are still waiting on for that to be viable, or is that viable today?

Prof. Sinclair : That is viable today.

Dr LEIGH: I suppose that the issue in the back of my mind is that, if Australians are concerned about their consumption leading to increased use of unsustainable palm oil or palm oil that endangers orangutans, I guess that most Australians would not want a situation in which we move to a labelling regime for foods and cosmetics and the only consequence of that was that unsustainable palm oil then found its way into the petrol pump. Is that feasible, as far as you understand—that substitution? With the process that you talk about, it sounds as though the palm oil that is being imported into Australia currently could easily be used in fuel.

Prof. Sinclair : Yes, of course. It would depend, as it is an economic question or answer. At the moment the food industry does need a cheap source of fat to put into most manufactured foods, and palm oil meets that requirement very effectively—and it is doing so around the world. But if at some point in time, let us say, it is more attractive for the palm oil producers to sell the palm oil into the biodiesel market, food industry manufacturers would need to look for an alternative source of vegetable oil—and they would find it because they have used them in the past. So that would be what would happen. I can assume that a consumer worried about the use or the growth of the palm industry in native forest areas would be worried about however it was used.

Dr LEIGH: I apologise if this is taking you out of your area of expertise but, in terms of the production of palm oil, why is the process to move to sustainable palm oils taking until 2015? It does seem quite a long period of transition. This is from the industry working group that has been referred to earlier.

Prof. Sinclair : I really cannot answer that. Just from my reading about sustainability, it has taken people a hell of a long time to tackle sustainability in general. As humans, where some of us have been able to do something about it in certain industries, other industries are dragging the chain a bit. So I would be thinking that in 50 years time, if we were to look back, we would have a better way of viewing the current situation. Some industries are ahead of the game. But if you think of what is happening in terms of the water waste in other agricultural practices or all the sewage that comes out of pig farms and whatever, those issues are being tackled bit by bit and it costs money to have a sustainable practice. It is only when there is overwhelming demand by, let us say, supermarkets or somebody that has some leverage that things change.

CHAIR: You were talking about the product of palm oil and how it has become so widely used because of its particular properties. What was used previously, before palm oil?

Prof. Sinclair : It would have been in the 1960s, when supermarkets were not as dominant and obvious as they are now, that people might have used pig fat, sheep fat, lard—that is pig fat—or animal fat from ruminants or even dairy, although dairy fat is expensive. With time—I am sorry to be historical, but that is how I think—the huge increase in the production of soya beans in the United States mainly as an animal feed led to a by-product being soya bean oil. They got that for nothing, pretty much, because they were not growing the soya beans for the oil, and they said, 'Well, we could use this in the food industry.' But it was too oily, too liquid, like most of the vegetable oils that we buy today. So they partially hydrogenated it, making it more solid.

What happens when you do that is that you significantly increase the amount of trans-fatty acids, which are like saturated fatty acids; they turn a product into a more solid product and, therefore, you can put it in food, because the oil does not flow out of whatever item you have made. You cannot put oil into, let us say, a muesli bar, because the oil would leak out of it; so it has to be semi-solid at the temperatures we sell it at. In the US, there is a massive use of partially hydrogenated soya bean oil. It did not happen here but it did happen in Europe, and we used whatever vegetable oils were around. So we would have used sunflower oil, safflower oil. We would not have used olive oil. We did not have much of a soya bean industry. We would have used animal fat—tallow, lard and things like that.

The industry were fully aware of health messages, so they were trying to get a product that had the right physical constituents at the right price and trying to have the lowest amount of saturated fat. It is not a soluble thing at this point in time. You cannot get a product of the right physical constituency, unless it has either trans-fatty acids or saturated fat in it. If somebody made an invention that overcame that conundrum, they would make a lot of money. We have used pretty much whatever was available. Manufacturers have done manipulation of the oils they have to try to jumble up the fatty acids in different vegetable oils, which has a tendency to make the product a little more solid than just the free oils. So they were doing a juggling act with cost, physical properties and the amount of saturated fat.

CHAIR: In terms of fats then, where does the comparison of palm oil from a nutritional point of view line up compared with those processes that you have just gone through that have historically been used?

Prof. Sinclair : If you have to get your physical properties of the oil that you are going to use, you are going to have to have saturated fat; and, if that saturated fat comes from one source or several different sources, it does not really matter in terms of health outcome. The major thing is how much saturated fat the individual eats. Most individuals do not have any idea of this, of course.

CHAIR: That goes back to where we started, I think, with our questions about the labelling, the percentages and the existing regulations, I suppose.

Prof. Sinclair : Yes.

CHAIR: Thank you, Professor, for your contribution here today. We have heard a lot from industry and environmental groups and it is very important to hear about the nutritional aspects of this product as well. We really do appreciate your time today. A copy of the Hansard record will be sent to you. If there are any errors or omissions, please get back to us as quickly as possible. Thank you once again for your contribution.

Prof. Sinclair : Thank you for listening to me.