Lack of sunflower oil: Why are the prices so high and what can I use instead?

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has led to a decline in sunflower oil exports, but vegetable oil prices were already at their highest ever

Health


April 8, 2022

Sunflower oil has become more expensive

Hleb Usovich / Alamy

One of the global consequences of Russia’s attack on Ukraine is the lack of sunflower oil. Some restaurants in Germany have reportedly even stopped selling chips because cooking oil has become so difficult to obtain. Here’s what you need to know.

Why is the supply of sunflower oil low in some countries?

About 80 percent of sunflower oil exports come from Ukraine and Russia. Exports from Ukraine have fallen by 95 percent due to Russia’s attack, Ievgen Osypov of the trading company Kernel told Bloomberg TV on April 5. Russia still exports oil, but has said it will impose a quota from April 15.

Can we not just use other vegetable oils instead?

Many food producers are already doing this. But global prices for vegetable oil were already at record highs before the war, and increased demand for other oils – the most common being canola (rapeseed), soybeans and palm trees – is driving up prices even further. Palm oil will probably be the leading replacement globally because it is the cheapest, says Thomas Alcock at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

Why were prices already so high?

A combination of increasing demand around the world due to people getting richer and the growing use of vegetable oils as biofuels, and supply problems related to pandemics and extreme weather. For example, extreme heat in Canada last year affected the rapeseed harvest.

Can anything be done to alleviate the shortage?

Yes. Globally, about 15 percent of vegetable oils are converted to biofuels due to government subsidies and commissions. For example, the European Union converts around 3.5 million tonnes of palm oil into biodiesel each year, almost equivalent to the amount of sunflower oil exported by Ukraine and Russia. Discontinuing or terminating biodiesel subsidies may increase the amount available for food use.

How long will the prices be high?

No one can say for sure, because it depends on everything from what is happening in Ukraine to what other countries are doing. Osypov estimates that Ukraine will produce 40 percent less sunflower oil this year, and it remains to be seen how much can be exported.

Are alternative oils more or less healthy?

Monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats are considered better for us than saturated fats. Of the other main vegetable oils produced globally, rapeseed oil is lower in saturated fats than sunflower oil, soybean oil is slightly higher and palm oil is significantly higher. But vegetable oils are complex mixtures of chemicals and it is difficult to measure their health effects directly.

Is sunflower oil particularly good for frying?

While sunflower oil can be heated to higher temperatures before it starts to smoke than some other oils, it is high in polyunsaturated fats that are broken down into compounds such as aldehydes when heated. These compounds usually taste and smell bad and are harmful to your health.

Which oils are then best for cooking?

While flavors vary, monounsaturated and saturated fats are more heat stable. Rapeseed and olive oil have high levels of monounsaturated fats such as oleic acid. Conventional breeding and genetic modification have also been used to create soybeans, safflowers and sunflowers whose oil has higher levels of oleic acid. Some food companies already use high oil content for frying because the oil does not need to be changed as often.

Is the exchange of other oils such as rapeseed a problem for people with allergies?

It is rapeseed pollen that triggers an allergic reaction in some people. Refined rapeseed oil should not contain pollen. According to the UK Food Standards Agency, the risk of serious allergic reactions is negligible.

Are alternative oils more or less environmentally friendly?

According to a recent study by Alcock, an average of the equivalent of 2.9 kilos of carbon dioxide is emitted per kilo of sunflower oil produced. For rapeseed oil it is 2.5 kg, palm oil 3.7 kg and soybean oil 4.3 kg. The main factor that determines emissions is where crops are grown, he says, and soybean and oil palms are often grown on land where rainforest has been cut down.

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