The truth behind palm oil

If you never look at the ingredient list at the back of your everyday food products, then you probably should. Palm oil is one of the most widely produced edible fats in the world and can be found in roughly half of all the supermarket products. From peanut butter and frozen pizzas to soaps, cleaning products and even makeup.

When it comes to looking at options for cooking oils, palm oil is the most controversial for environmental and health reasons.

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from a fruit grown on the African oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). The trees thrive in places where there is a lot of heat and rainfall, so they are found mostly in Africa, North and South America and Asia.

Palm oil is found in hundreds of everyday brands such as Cadbury, Persil, Flora Spreads, Birds Eye Poultry, Kellogg’s, Nestle and many more. It’s reported that the brand Ferrero for example, uses around 185,000 tonnes of palm oil a year.

Tropical oils such as palm oil and coconut oil have got a bad reputation because they are high in saturated fat which is linked to heart disease. These saturated fats boost cholesterol and triglycerides which can cause the disease.

Palm oil has 50% saturated fat compared to palm kernel oil and coconut oil which have 85%. Although a study ‘Palm oil and the heart ’, found that when consumed as part of a balanced diet “palm oil does not have incremental risk for cardiovascular disease”, It is important to note that palm oil can be hidden in a lot of food under ‘vegetable oils’ and may be in more food we consume than we are aware of.

As the unhealthiest fats (trans fats) are now banned, palm oil is most commonly used as a replacement. Most trans fats are artificially created and are mostly used for frying foods and in processed snacks.

Manufacturers were therefore looking for alternatives to these trans fats and found palm oil a healthier and more cost-effective option.

Palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil costing around $800 dollars, compared to sunflower oil $845 and rapeseed oil $920.

There is a debate whether consuming palm oil is associated with more severe health risks.  According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) palm oil generates more of a containment that’s potentially cancer causing that other oils.

The cancer fears come from compounds known as glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), which are produced in palm oil when it is heated above 200 degrees celsius.

However, the EFSA didn’t advise to stop eating the oil as further studies need to be completed before the level of risk can be properly calculated.

The other widely talked about issue to do with palm oil is sustainability and deforestation. Palm oil is produced using methods that destroy wildlife habitats, emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and displace native populations.

As global demand for palm oil is increasing, acres of rainforests are being cut down leading to a loss of animal habitat especially for endangered species like orangutans.

Palm oil production is said to have been responsible for about 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008.

According to Rainforest Rescue, palm oil plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity on an area the size of New Zealand.

In January, The European Parliament voted to ban the use of palm oil to produce biofuels in the EU by 2020, with the proclaimed aim to stop the deforestation of the rainforests, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Although it’s not our first instinct to inspect ingredients in our food every day, it’s always a good idea to do so even from time to time.

Research what they are, how they are produced, where and finally how they can impact your health in the short and long run.

Image Credit: Flickr 

Author: Kinga Piotrowska