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

Russia’s attack on Ukraine caused sunflower oil exports to plummet, but vegetable oil prices were already at an all-time high


April 8, 2022

Sunflower oil has become more expensive

Hleb Usovitch/Alamy

One of the global consequences of the Russian attack on Ukraine is a shortage of sunflower oil. Some restaurants in Germany have reportedly even stopped selling fries because cooking oil has become so hard to obtain. Here’s what you need to know.

Why is the sunflower oil supply declining in some countries?

Around 80% of sunflower oil exports come from Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian exports fell 95% due to the Russian attack, Ievgen Osypov of trading firm Kernel told Bloomberg TV on April 5. Russia still exports the oil, but said it would impose a quota from April 15.

Can’t we just use other vegetable oils instead?

Many food producers are already doing this. But world prices for vegetable oils were already at an all-time high before the war, and increased demand for other oils – the most common being rapeseed (canola), soybean and palm – is driving up their prices even further. Palm oil is likely to be the main substitute globally because it is the cheapest, says Thomas Alcock of the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

Why were the prices already so high?

A combination of growing demand around the world due to the enrichment of populations and the increasing use of vegetable oils as biofuels, and supply problems related to the pandemic and extreme weather conditions. For example, extreme heat in Canada last year hurt rapeseed yields.

Can we do something to alleviate the shortage?

Yes. Globally, about 15% of vegetable oils are turned into biofuels thanks to government subsidies and mandates. For example, the European Union converts around 3.5 million tonnes of palm oil into biodiesel every year, almost the equivalent of the amount of sunflower oil exported by Ukraine and Russia. Suspending or ending biodiesel subsidies could increase the amount available for food use.

How long will prices stay 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% less sunflower oil this year, and it remains to be seen how much can be exported.

Are alternative oils more or less healthy?

It is believed that monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats are better for us than saturated fats. Of the other major vegetable oils produced in the world, rapeseed oil has less saturated fat than sunflower oil, soybean oil is slightly higher, and palm oil is significantly higher. However, vegetable oils are complex mixtures of chemicals and it is difficult to measure their health effects directly.

Is sunflower oil particularly good for frying?

Although sunflower oil can be heated to higher temperatures before it begins to smoke than some other oils, it is high in polyunsaturated fats which break down into compounds such as aldehydes when heated. These compounds generally have a bad taste and smell and are harmful to health.

Which oils are best for cooking, then?

Although tastes vary, monosaturated 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, safflower and sunflower seeds whose oil contains higher levels of oleic acid. Some food companies already use high oleic oils for frying because the oil doesn’t need to be changed as often.

Is the substitution of other oils such as rapeseed a problem for allergy sufferers?

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, on average, the equivalent of 2.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide is emitted per kilogram of sunflower oil produced. For rapeseed oil, it is 2.5 kg, palm oil 3.7 kg and soybean oil 4.3 kg. The biggest determinant of emissions is where crops are grown, he says, and soybeans and oil palms are often grown on land where rainforests have been cut down.

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