You’re likely not reaching for palm oil when making your favorite meal, but you’d be surprised how often we use it in our everyday lives.
Palm oil is found in a wide variety of products we use everyday. Goods such as instant noodles, ice cream and even laundry detergent contain palm oil. It’s a ubiquitous line item on the list of many ingredient lists.
But what is palm oil? Is it healthy for us? Is it okay for the planet?
Palm oil // Defined
Palm oil is an oily kernel sourced from the fleshy fruit of a palm plant (elaeis guineensis). There are two main reasons as to why 1/3 of all plant-based oils are sourced from palms.
- 1) These kernels are an efficient source of oil, making them a popular choice for snacks and household cleaners.
- 2) Palm oil takes quite a long time to degrade, meaning it greatly extends the shelf life of foods and beauty products.
Where is palm oil grown?
Native to Southwest Africa, this tropical tree has found its way to the world’s most biodiverse and tropical regions. The Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia and Malaysia now produce more than 80% of the world’s palm oil. However, parts of Africa and South America are beginning to produce more palm oil plantations as well (see photo).
Why is this an issue?
Indonesia and Malaysia are biodiversity hotspots, meaning they contain a large proportion of earth’s wildlife (flora and fauna). Considering we are losing thousands of species a year – this is a global crisis.
Indigenous orangutans are just one of many species facing extinction due to the rise in palm oil cultivation. The destruction of these tropical forests is threatening the existence of numerous other species, including Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran elephants, Sumatran tigers, and Sumatran rhinoceroses. Once these species are gone, they are gone forever.
Just 2 decades ago, 45% of the land in Southeast Asia currently used to grow palm oil was dense tropical forest.
Deforestation in these parts of the world is a leading driver of climate change. Forests are the lungs of the Earth, helping to convert CO2 to oxygen.
Okay, but is palm oil healthy?
Palm oil is a heavy hitter when it comes to saturated fats, which make up 50% of the oil’s calories. Saturated fats usually come from animal-based foods, but there are a select few plant-based exceptions – palm oil being one of them.
Consuming too much saturated fat has been linked to heart disease and obesity. A collection of clinical trials found that regular consumption of palm oil significantly raises our LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) .
1 Tablespoon of palm oil contains
- Calories: 114
- Fat: 14 grams
- Saturated fat: 7 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 5 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 1.5 grams
- Vitamin E: 11% of the RDI
A less commonly produced red palm oil has unique nutritional benefits by comparison. Red palm oil contains carotenoids, which are converted to vitamin A in our bodies. Certain low-income populations around the world can benefit from the moderate consumption of red palm oil. However most of the world has healthier and more sustainable options for obtaining Vitamin A – such as pumpkins or carrots.
Minimizing the use of this oil is best for your heart health.
So, should we stop using palm oil?
No, not necessarily. While the sourcing of most palm oil is linked to deforestation, that doesn’t mean it has to be.
The non-profit organization known as The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), has been working towards a more transparent and sustainable palm oil industry.
To become RSPO certified, palm oil industries must meet critical guidelines, including:
- No deforestation in areas which contain endangered species, fragile ecosystems, or in areas which would disrupt indigenous communities.
- Minimal use of pesticides and slash and burn techniques
- Ethical treatment of workers (which is a huge problem in the Palm Oil industry).
What can I do?
Read the ingredients before you purchase products like margarine, chocolate, cleaning detergents, and lipstick.
If these products contain palm oil, be certain that the oil has been RSPO certified by looking for the label (see below). If the product does not contain RSPO certified oil, opt for a brand that does.
What if my favorite brand of chunky peanut butter or shade of lipstick uses palm oil?
Then speak up! Write, call, or email the company, and demand sustainable palm oil or for an alternative to be used. There’s no faster way to promote change than consumer demand.
Want to see if your favourite brands use sustainable palm oil? Check out this palm oil scorecard.
Our future depends on creating a sustainable system that is healthy for all people and works in harmony with nature.
THE TAKEAWAY //
Palm oil production is linked to massive deforestation in the world’s most biodiverse areas. Palm oil is also not great for our health when consumed in large amounts. Swapping this oil for another plant-based alternative will be better for you and the planet.
LEARN MORE //
Want to learn more about the sustainable palm oil supply chain? Check out this great infographic from RSPO.
DO MORE //
Donate to World Wildlife Fund (WWF). This non-profit organization is working hard to ensure forests and biodiversity are sustainably managed.