I’m sure you all heard not to eat peanut butter and other products that include palm oil. Why? I was told it was because of toxins in palm oil production, or because planting palm forests is harmful for the environment, and also, cutting palm trees is harmful for the environment? Which is it? Well, fear not, I shall find out!
The palm fruit yields two oils – palm oil (red) and palm kernel oil (white). Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit and is used in food products. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit and is used mainly in the manufacture of soaps and cosmetics. Oil palm is highly productive, capable of yielding more oil from less land than any other vegetable oil, with relatively modest inputs – which makes its production quite profitable. According to WWF, palm oil accounts for 65% of all vegetable oil traded internationally. You can find palm oil in ice cream, vegetable oil spreads, but also shampoos and lipstick! It can also be used as biofuel. Palm oil production requires less fertilizer per unit of output than other oilseed crops, and does not require many pesticides either. Overall, seems like a win win!
Red palm oil is high in saturated fat, similarly to coconut oil… still looks like it’s not too bad! There is 49g of saturated and 37g of monounsaturated fat in 100g of palm oil (coconut oil – 87g of saturated fat). Fats that contain mostly saturated fat are good for frying – you should not fry on oils high in unsaturated fats, since it destroys their beneficial properties and can create toxic components in the process, like trans fats, for example. Red palm oil contains 50% MCFA (medium chain fatty acids), similar to those found in coconut oil. In addition, it contains vitamins A and E and other antioxidants such as carotenoids, flavonoids and phenolic acids. Red palm oil has been found to reduce diabetes in mice, and also could prevent diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer or Alzheimer’s disease due to its antioxidant and MCFA content.
Not all palm oil will have these benefits though. You need to be looking for unrefined, cold pressed oil. Refined palm oil loses its red colour and also some of its healthy micronutrients. Products such as hydrogenated or oxidised palm oil might actually contribute to creating free radicals in your body, and this way increase your risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease. Refined palm oil was found to increase inflammation in adipose tissue (fat storage) and plasma (component of blood) in rats, when compared to a high-fat diet formulated with milk fat, rapeseed oil, or sunflower oil. Even worse, study from 1999 stated that oxidized palm oil causes reproductive toxicity and is toxic to organs such as kidneys, lungs, liver and heart.
Finally, there are several issues with palm oil production. In order to produce palm oil, forests are destroyed to make place for palm plantations. The deforestation can be done by burning away the forest, which contributes to the greenhouse gas production. Destroying natural forests also takes away homes from animals, and indigenous people living in them. Rhinos, elephants and tigers have been endangered by palm oil plantations. Other problems of palm oil plantations include soil erosion, air pollution, and soil and water pollution. All of this ultimately leads to the one thing we really don’t want – greenhouse effect and climate change. I know it seems nowadays that everything leads to that ultimately, but since there is something that can be done about palm oil production – action should be taken. Palm oil production is continuously increasing and because of that, it needs to be held in check.
So… should we eat palm oil or not?… Well, the answer is, it depends. What you should be looking for is using sustainable palm oil. It is healthy, and if produced in sustainable way, it can benefit both the economies of the countries that produce it, and the environment. You should look for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification on a product, which would mean that is uses certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). If you are having trouble finding one, avoid products that contain palm oil and focus on buying local produce – it will be less likely to contain it.