Palm oil is an incredibly versatile product used in everything from detergents, through fuel to food!
Mainly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, which provide 86% of the world's supply, the oil comes from the fruit of the African palm tree.
It’s a cheap and useful oil, but is it safe, and what environmental impacts does it have?
Environmental Concerns over Palm Oil
The main concern is that consumption of palm oil is driving the replacement of valuable tropical forests and peatlands with palm tree plantations.
These ecosystems are home to unique biodiversity that will forever be lost if not looked after. The most prominent, but not the only, impact is on orangutans, whose population has halved in the last century.
But it’s worse than that; these areas are the home to many more species, and their destruction, usually involving burning, leads directly to increased carbon emissions.
There are now 27 million hectares of palm tree plantations, and they continue to grow.
Yet, whilst it’s easy to demonise palm tree oil, the picture is more complicated than you might think. Local people depend on these plantations as a source of income; if they don’t grow palm trees there, they might well just grow something else.
And palm oil in itself does have a big environmental plus: it has a high yield for a low cost of production. In other words, more food for less resource consumption.
How healthy is palm oil?
Extra virgin olive oil is, probably, the healthiest oil in the world. You can even use it to fry food at low and medium temperatures; its stability makes it ideal for that.
Yet it isn't suitable for every scenario, and more to the point it has one enormous defect: its price.
That just isn't the case with palm oil.
This is one of the reasons that palm oil is so popular; it's cheap. To keep food affordable, manufacturers have a budget for what they can add. This means, where possible, going for lower-priced ingredients.
Yet is palm oil healthy? Are you safe to consume it and is it good for you? Well, firstly, it's said to be healthier than many of the alternatives. Trans fats, which have been used as an alternative to palm oil, are amongst the worst fats that can be consumed, as research shows they increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
Although palm oil is relatively high in saturated fats, which often isn't considered great, it has no trans fats.
So purely in health terms, drastic avoidance isn't necessary. Yet, if you do avoid palm oil, make sure you don't replace it with something worse!
Can you avoid Palm Oil? Should you?
If you want to eliminate palm oil from your diet for environmental or health reasons, it may be more challenging than you think. Do you have any peanut butter at home? Go and look at the ingredients, unless it’s an organic or premium brand, it almost certainly contains palm oil.
Maybe you’re reducing oil usage with a healthy nonstick, non-Teflon, environmentally friendly pan, but what are you cooking in the pan? Many unlikely ingredients contain palm oil.
In fact, almost half the products stocked by UK supermarkets contain palm oil.
To completely avoid palm oil, you will need to check ingredient lists of everything you buy fastidiously. You'll need to pay more for alternatives, and even miss out on some products. For many, this is worthwhile.
Another course of action is to consume solely sustainable palm oil, certified by organisations like the RSPO (The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). By refusing to buy products with palm oil, unless it is certified as sustainable, you'll get the best of both worlds:
If you live in the UK, this could be easier than you might think. British companies have been praised for their move to sustainable palm oil.
But how do you know whether the product you are buying includes sustainable palm oil?