Let’s talk about palm oil: is it really that bad?

If we were to show you the list of ingredients of your favourite cookies and you read Elaies guineensis, what’s the first thing that would come to your mind? Unless you’re in the scientific field or you’re very interested in these types of subjects, you would probably have no idea what it means. But what if we were to say palm oil instead? Would that ring a bell? Well, turns out, Elaies guineensis and palm oil are exactly the same thing. Elaies guineensis is just the scientific name used for the-oil-which-shall-not-be-named, and yet another word to confuse consumers reading the list of ingredients of their go-to snack. 

As you probably already know, palm oil has earned itself a pretty bad rap over the years and is continuing to do so as people learn more and more about its effects. So how come that with all this information at hand, the global palm oil production has gone from 15 million tonnes in 1995 to 66 million in 2017? Today we delve deeper into the subject and tell you why the need of a paradigm shift in the palm oil industry is more urgent than ever.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. Its scientific name is Elaeis guineensis and it’s native to West Africa. Palm oil became a highly sought-after commodity by British traders during Britain’s ongoing Industrial Revolution as it functioned as industrial lubricant for machines. It soon started being exported to Europe to continue to be commercialized as lubricant, as well as candles, and then quickly became a highly appreciated product, given its low production price and extreme versatility. The more the demand rose during the 20th century, the more the Europeans began building larger plantations of palm oil trees in Central Africa and South-East Asian countries.

Why is it so versatile? Well, it all comes down to its melting temperature: it’s semi-solid at room temperature, so can keep spreads spreadable, it’s resistant to oxidation and so can give products a longer shelf-life, it’s stable at high temperatures and so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture, and it’s also odourless and colourless, so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products (WWF). The food industry hasn’t been able to find another vegetable fat with the same disposability and stability that’s also naturally solid at room temperature, hence palm oil has found itself at second place when it comes to worldwide production, following soy oil.

Despite not being commercialized on its own when it comes to supermarkets, palm oil is not only the most used oil in food, but it’s also very commonly used in skincare products. Its low price, anti-aging, cleaning and humidifying properties, make it the most common ingredient in cosmetic products: creams, soaps, lotions, toothpastes, shower gels, SPFs, you name it.

Up until this point, everything seems to be pretty normal. It’s a cheap vegetable oil that’s extremely versatile.

Then, why is considered to be 21st century’s number one enemy?

Doctor Marion Nestle, one of the most influential people in the food industry explains: “palm oil raises two important concerns. First, its high levels of saturated fatty acids increase the risk of having coronary heart diseases. Second, its production is very harmful for both the environment and human health”.

In a 2019 report made by the World Health Organisation titled “The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases”, a group of experts analyses how the palm oil industry is promoting obesity and chronic illnesses. “The analysis shows many parallelisms with the nature of the practices adopted by the tobacco and the alcohol industry”, concludes the doctor.

Palm oil is especially rich in saturated fatty acids, which are directly linked to the rise of metabolic disorders. In other words: it’s a ‘bad fat’. It’s probably not the first time you’ve heard the term ‘bad fats’ in comparison to ‘good fats’, but what does it actually mean? In general, bad fats are those fats that have the same biochemical profile as saturated ones. The rest are considered to be good. It’s also important to note that not all saturated fats are the same: there are also good fats among the saturated fats. However when it comes to palmitic acid, it’s nothing short of bad: in fact, it’s probably one of the worst saturated fats you can actually find.

On top of everything, an American scientific study warned about the dangers of retinyl palmitate, which is the chemical compound made from the reaction created between retinal and the palmitic acid, and one that is often used in the making of cosmetic products, saying that when exposed to the sun, it can accelerate skin tumors and injuries.

Its environmental impact

One of the biggest consequences palm oil production has caused and is still causing to this day is deforestation. Due to the massive global demand, huge surfaces filled with tropical trees and peat bogs (if you don’t know what peat bogs are, this article should help) are being cut down in order to make space for palm oil tree plantations. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), assures that illegal plantations have also been built in natural protected areas, such as national parks.

All of this not only has a devastating effect on the forest’s natural habitat, but also on the atmosphere, the local wildlife and the human beings living in it. One of the biggest consequences deforestation has is the loss of biodiversity: as a result of the impact these crops have on tropical areas, many living beings inhabiting the forests are forced to move somewhere else. The natural corridors are eliminated, hot spots are harmed and many species end up being isolated, having a toll on their reproduction and thus, reducing their genetic diversity.

On the other hand, the indiscriminate use of pesticides, traps and electric fences, as well as the shootings that occur when animals enter crops, has also resulted to be extremely harmful. In 1900 there were around 315.000 orangutans; today, there are less than 50,000, and they have all been isolated from each other into small groups that could very easily extinguish in just one decade. To be even more specific: more than 6000 orangutans die each year as a direct result of the oil palm expansion. Other species include the Sumatra tiger, the Sumatra rhinoceros, the Malayan bear, the pygmy elephant, the clouded leopard, and the proboscis monkey.

On top of the deforestation and the extinction of species, palm oil production releases so much CO2 into the atmosphere that its effect on climate change and air contamination is something we should all be definitely worried about.

Another issue to consider is the effect the African palm tree has on the ground on which it’s cultivated. What happens it’s that it monopolises its nutrients, resulting in a progressive impoverishment of the land followed by the displacement of many indigenous communities from their own lands. What’s worse is that in case they decide to stay working on said lands, their conditions would be close to those of slavery.

What can we do to stop all of this?

Although it may seem contradictory, to stop or prohibit palm tree production is not the answer. One of the arguments presented by many conservation organisations, including the Conservation International Organization and the UICN, is that eliminating palm oil from the equation won’t alter the increasing demand for edible oils and biofuels. Due to the fact that other oil cultures have lower performance rates, its replacement would only exacerbate an already existing issue, as producers would need more land in order to produce it. Other oil cultures need up to 9 times the land palm oil needs, so replacing it for other types of oils would considerably increase the number of lands used to produce enough vegetable oil to satisfy the global demand. In other words: the enemy is not the oil itself, it’s the way it’s cultivated.

The Union of Concerned Scientists offer 4 steps we can take in order to bring a solution to this problem:

  1. Plantation developers improve yields and plant on degraded land
  2. Governments formulate their biofuels policies to avoid unintended consequences and to ensure that critical climate goals are met
  3. Companies in palm oil-related businesses act to ensure that none of their raw materials contribute to tropical deforestation or peatland depletion
  4. Consumers exert their influence

Sustainable palm oil: can I trust it?

Sustainable palm oil wants to shift the way we view palm oil. And that’s very cool and all, but what does sustainable palm oil exactly mean? Sustainable palm oil is the oil that’s produced in a way that’s respectful towards the environment. Due to its low environmental impact and the quality controls it goes through, it receives an identification that qualifies it as sustainable. To say that it’s sustainable means that it stands for respecting three aspects that are equally as important: the green lungs of our planet, the demands of the local population and the ecosystem’s own animal diversity, which vows to protect endangered species such as the orangutan.

There are logosthat can help you identify which palm oil has been produced in an ethical and sustainable way, such as the oil produced by programs lead by the RSPO and Green Palm:

For the Spanish Foundation of Sustainable Palm Oil, the social alarm regarding this subject has been blown out of proportion: “The objective of having sustainable palm oil is to reduce the impact the production usually has on natural habitats, to better the workers’ conditions and that of the indigenous communities affected”. Horacio González, the foundation’s advisor says: “yes, some of the practices in the past were wrong, but that’s precisely one of the reasons sustainable palm oil was born in collaboration with national governments, NGOs and companies”.

You can watch this WWF short video to further understand what goes behind the production of sustainable palm oil:

What can we personally do?

The market trends point at the fact that consumers are paying closer attention to the small print when buying products. And companies that are not using palm oil in the production of their products are letting everybody know with a logo or a sign that specifies it.

To those of you who want to boicot the whole thing, we advise you to do it the right way. Not seeing the words ‘palm oil’ on the list of ingredients of a product you want to buy, doesn’t guarantee it’s not there. Sometimes companies trick consumers by writing things such as  ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fats’ instead, but that’s just palm oil in disguise. Thankfully, the Internet is full of lists of products containing palm oil and other words that might mean the same thing. Here’s a list made by the WWF with more than 20 terms that might help you make an informed decision next time you do your shopping.

A lot of brands have decided to take the matter into their own hands and have abandoned the use of palm oil all together by using alternatives such as hydrogenated oils, coconut oil, sunflower oil, or cocoa butter. Although they might be more expensive, they’re definitely more sustainable and much more respectful towards the needs of the new consumers who want change.

The most important thing right now is to be well-informed and take action as much as we can: whether it’s choosing to consume sustainable palm tree oil or choosing not to buy any products where palm oil is involved. What matters is to stop contributing to the destruction of forests, its biodiversities and its communities, as well as the pollution that all of this is causing. However that may be for you.

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