Palm Oil , Refined Oil and Allergies

Originally published Dec. 12, 2016.

We’ve received several questions and comments related to the article Does Palm Oil Cause Allergic Reactions?

Some of the questions have been about what foods contain palm oil. The World Wildlife Fund notes that palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. An interactive chart shows products that contain palm oil and why. It is used in foods such as bread, instant noodles, cookies and chocolate, as well as other products including lipstick and detergent.

Many questions have centered around possible allergic reactions to palm oil and questions about refined oils. We reached out to Dr. Steve Taylor, co-founder of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, and professor at the University of Nebraksa-Lincoln.

Palm oil is unlikely to cause an allergic reaction, Dr. Taylor said, but some people told us about having reactions such as stomach pain, hives, rash or indigestion when they eat foods that contain it. “If consumers believe they are adversely affected by ingestion of palm oil, then they can avoid eating it,” he advised.

Denise sent this question: “Is there soy in palm oil? I’m allergic to soy.”

Dr. Taylor said there should never be soy in palm oil or palm kernel oil. This leads to another question: If someone is allergic to soy, would soy oil cause a reaction?

Dr. Taylor:Highly refined soybean oil does not cause allergic reactions.  When Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling & Consumer Protection Act in 2004, they exempted highly refined oils from the source labeling requirements. (Some companies still use ‘Contains Soy’ on products where the only apparent source of soy is soy oil, but that is not required).

What is highly refined oil?

Dr. Taylor: “Congress did not define what is meant by ‘highly refined.’ But the consensus would surely be that solvent extracted, neutralized, bleached and deodorized oil is highly refined (so-called RBD oil by some in industry although that is not a labeling term). Published clinical evidence exists that highly refined peanut, soy and sunflower seed oils do not cause allergic reactions when ingested by peanut-, soy-, or sunflower seed-allergic patients, respectively.  I expect that is what gave Congress the impetus to incorporate the exemption into the law.

“Most soybean oils on the market or incorporated into foods are highly refined. Cold-pressed or expeller-pressed soybean oil does exist as an alternate oil in many retail groceries and supermarkets. Cold-pressed or expeller-pressed soybean oil would not likely be classified by FDA as highly refined. Consumers would typically find this oil in the natural foods section of the store. In my expert opinion, soy-allergic consumers may wish to avoid cold-pressed soybean oil although I am not aware of any consumer complaints regarding reactions to such oil from soy-allergic consumers. The soy oil used in various foods as a food ingredient is virtually always highly refined as cold-pressed oil is more expensive and has a beany flavor that is not desirable for most uses. Thus, I think that the only likely exposure to cold-pressed soy oil is through the alternate oils sold in natural foods section of grocery stores but I cannot completely guarantee that some ‘natural’ products might not use this type of oil.”

As noted before, food allergies are caused by proteins. What does that mean for products like palm oil or soy oil?

Dr. Taylor: The allergens in soybean are found in the protein fraction of the soybean seed. The proteins are removed during the refining process. That is why highly refined soybean oil is safe. Cold-pressed soybean oil has low levels of residual soy protein that have some potential to elicit allergic reactions in highly soy-allergic consumers and that is why I advocate avoidance of such oils.

“Palm and palm kernel oil should contain no soy protein. Palm and palm kernel oils should also not contain any soy oil. Thus these oils should present no risk to soy-allergic consumers.

Soy-allergic consumers should be able to safely consume highly refined soy oil. However, some allergists may suggest that their soy-allergic patients should avoid soy oil. I do not wish to counteract that medical advice because I am clearly not familiar with each individual case and I am not a physician. Thus if a soy-allergic consumer wishes to avoid soy oil, then that is their privilege.”

Is there anything else people with allergies should be aware of regarding oils?

Dr. Taylor: “I should be clear that in some applications, oil mixtures are used for frying or other purposes.  Such mixed oils can contain oil from numerous source including palm, palm kernel, soybean, canola, corn, sunflower seed, etc. Typically all of these oils are highly refined. Because of the source labeling exemption for highly refined oils, it may not always be easy to identify when soy oil is used in such mixtures. In my opinion, this practice has no adverse health consequences to soy-allergic consumers. But it can increase the difficulty of avoiding soy oil for those consumers who wish to do so.”

Palm oil is found in many foods. Highly refined oils are not likely to cause an allergic reaction and in most cases can be safely consumed. If you believe you are experiencing an allergic reaction related to any particular foods, visit an allergist or physician.