Nearly 50% of the packaged foods at our supermarket contain palm oil. So let’s explore its alarming impact on our health and the environment.
Palm oil accounts for one-third of vegetable oils produced annually yet as a product it is virtually invisible. It hides under the miscellaneous label “vegetable oil” and is used as an alternative to trans fats.
Palm oil has replaced trans fats – a well-known baddie linked to chronic diseases – as a stabiliser in packaged food products because it has a longer shelf life than other oils.
We consume over 70 million metric tons of palm oil for use in food and beauty products each year. But do we understand the cost to health and home?
The History Of Palm Oil
Palm oil has been consumed for over 500 years, but it is only in the last 15 years that we have started using it to such excess in our food.
The oil palm tree is grown on plantations in Africa, Indonesia, and South-East Africa, among others. It takes roughly six months to produce its reddish plum-sized fruit.
The fruit is boiled and ground before the oil is separated from the juices. A fruit yields 82% palm oil (used in food), 10% palm kernel (used in cattle food), and 8% palm kernel oil (used in cosmetics).
You can find it in common food products like margarine and ice cream, while it is also used as a base for liquid detergents, lipsticks, and waxes.
According to the WWF, palm oil can be found in approximately 50% of packaged food in our supermarkets.
The oil palm crop produces ten times more oil than alternatives like soybean or rapeseed.
A report by the World Bank and Asia Development Bank found the Malaysian palm oil industry (the second largest after Indonesia) employs nearly 570,000 people. It is a huge industry that generates approximately $22 billion a year.
Is It Good Or Bad For Your Health?
Trans fats – the artificial hardened type that results when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil – are used in food to prolong shelf life.
Although they are a type of unsaturated fat, they behave like saturated fats, increasing the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the body.
Unlike saturated fats, however, trans fats also lower the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in the body, increasing the risk of heart disease.
Many food manufacturers have switched to palm oil in an attempt to remove trans fats from their products, such as some potato chips and biscuits.
The problem is palm oil contains 40-60% saturated fat, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson Melanie McGrice suggests the confusion surrounding palm oil comes from its anonymous listing as ‘vegetable oil’ on nutritional panels.
“It’s difficult knowing how to read labels and understanding how much saturated fat you should have”, McGrice says. “We want people to have less than 10 per cent of saturated fat a day. Look at the per 100g column for a percentage.”
However, palm oil is not all bad – a small amount of saturated fat is part of a healthy diet.
Palm oil contains ten times as much vitamin A as carrots, improving your vision, the strength of your teeth and bones, and helping your body to heal. But vitamin A can be found in many other oils.
“People can replace the palm oil in their diet with healthier oils that are higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as canola and olive oil to reduce the risk of chronic diseases”, McGrice says.
Palm oil continues to be used due to its long shelf-life and can be found mainly in processed foods such as chips, biscuits, and takeaway foods – packaged foods that can live in your cupboard for months.
According to the WWF, rainforests in South East Asia and Indonesia are being deforested at an alarming rate. Twelve million hectares were cleared for the cultivation of palm oil plants in 2005. An area the size of 300 soccer fields is being cleared for plantations every hour.
Planet Ark Palm Oil Free campaign leader Lucy Band says clearing land for palm oil plantations is destroying some of the most diverse habitats on earth and contributing to global warming.
“Deforestation results in the release of greenhouse gases”, Band says. “It threatens the lives of many species and causes environmental degradation through fires, and soil and water contamination.”
According to the Australian Orangutan Project (AOP), the wild orangutan population has halved in the last decade and the Sumatran orangutan could be extinct within ten years.
The Asian elephant, tiger, and Sumatran rhinoceros have been classified as endangered due to the environmental destruction caused by palm oil deforestation.
What Can We Do About The Palm Oil?
Steering clear of palm oil can only mean good things for our health and for the environment.
Lucy Band believes that we, as consumers, have the power to bring about change. But we must take action. “Write to the manufacturer asking them to go palm oil free and join the campaign for mandatory labelling of palm oil products”, she says.
Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) comes from sustainable plantations cleared prior to 2005 and certified by the industry lead not-for-profit association Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
In Australia, there is no legislation requiring the mandatory labelling of palm oil on product labels. Usually listed simply as “vegetable oil”, palm oil is difficult to identify without directly contacting the manufacturing company.
You can, however, try to identify palm oil in food by checking the amount of saturated fat and vegetable oil on the nutritional panel.
McGrice suggests two healthy eating options: “Number one, stay away from pre-packaged foods and number two, read the label on your vegetable oil or choose an olive oil instead.”
Palm oil contains 40-60% saturated fat, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.