PALM OIL: FRIEND OR FOE?
Palm trees are often associated with tropical beaches, sunsets and vacations, so you may be surprised to learn some species produce an oily fruit, from which we extract palm oil. Oil from oil palms (Elaeis guineensis, and Elaeis oleifera) is the world’s cheapest and most popular vegetable oil. Its neutral flavour and aroma, long shelf life and good shortening properties make palm oil a common ingredient in many food products such as biscuits and chips. Palm oil is also very versatile and used broadly across personal care products such as laundry detergents, toothpaste and cosmetics, and is also used in plastics and biofuels. In the EU and USA, if palm oil is used it must be listed in the ingredients list but in Australia it can fall under the more generic ‘vegetable oil’ label or technical names like Palmitate, Sodium Laurel Sulphate or its botanical name E. guineensis. You may be consuming more palm oil than you realise.
Does palm oil impact the environment? On the plus side, palm oil production is the most efficient of all oil crops. One acre of oil palm can produce up to eight times more than other oil crops. This is an environmental benefit, however there are significant down sides. There are millions of hectares of available cleared land suitable for sustainable palm oil production in Indonesia. However, businesses can make extra income from selling cleared timber to help offset the costs of establishing a palm oil plantation and deforestation is common adverse environmental result. This occurs in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia where most of the world’s palm oil is produced. The United Nations Environment Program estimates 7 million hectares of forests are cut down every year – a massive area roughly the size of Portugal. Deforestation destroys the habitats of animals such as orang-utans, rhinos, tigers and elephants. The slash and burn method is the fastest and cheapest method to clear land; sadly many animals lose their homes or are burned alive. Displaced animals often wander back into plantations where they may be stolen by poachers or killed by plantation workers that consider them to be pests. Burning forests also releases carbon dioxide into the air, contributing to global warning. The bad news is forests in Malaysia and Indonesia often sit on carbon rich peat lands and release even more carbon into the atmosphere when burned – an environmental double whammy.
Unfortunately eliminating palm oil from the food supply won’t stop deforestation. Palm oil production generates more oil than any other major oil crop: 6 times more oil than rapeseed (canola) and 10 times more oil than soy. If we switch to another oil this will worsen the deforestation issue. Palm oil also generates much needed income for some of the poorest people in the world, therefore ceasing production would have economic ramifications.
Is palm oil good or bad for our health? Palm oil is not a healthy choice. Palm oil contains a mixture of fats, of which roughly 50% is saturated fat. This type of fat increases the “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood, which is a risk factor for heart disease. The Heart Foundation recommends that less than 10% of your total daily energy intake should come from saturated fat. However, trans fats are even worse and many (cheap) replacements for palm oil are partially hydrogenated and contain trans fats. Trans fats increase “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, but also reduce the “good” HDL cholesterol. Palm oil is not a nutritional superstar, but at least it doesn’t have trans fats and it contains less saturated fat than coconut oil and butter. The best oil choices for health are more unsaturated oils vegetable oils such as olive oil and canola oil, however these are more expensive and do not provide the same technical properties as palm oil.
The most sustainable choice While it is not realistic to stop using palm oil, we should encourage food companies to choose more ethically and sustainably produced palm oil. There is Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) that does not involve clearing land where there are high concentrations of endangered species or vulnerable ecosystems. Some companies are making steps in the right direction toward being CSPO by being members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Palm oil in a nutshell:
- Palm oil is the most commonly used oil in the world, but its production contributes to global warming, deforestation and threatens endangered animal species.
- If using packaged products, look for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).
- For good health, choose products that contain healthier oils like olive, canola or sunflower oil.
Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA TheSeasonalDietitian.com for her assistance with this article.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious. Contact: You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or check out her website.