Palm Oil: What's The Deal?
Many of us health-conscious foodies make an effort to cook with healthy oils like coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil, safe in the knowledge we're making a healthy choice. But unless you're making a conscious effort to cut-out pre-prepared and processed food, the chances are you're consuming a lot of palm oil too.
So what’s the problem with palm oil?
Spurred-on by the recent forest fires in Indonesia, I thought it would be useful to educate myself on what really is involved in producing palm oil. The WWF estimate that 65% of all vegetable oil traded internationally is in fact palm oil, making it the most widely used. It's found in a huge range of products including breads, biscuits, spreads, snacks, nut butters, cereals, lipstick, shampoo and even instant noodles!
The palm fruit is most commonly found in areas of Indonesia and Malaysia - also home to endangered species including orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos. Due to the rising demand of palm oil, many illegal plantations are setting up shop in the rainforest and burning away vast areas of land to make room for plantations. By destroying their habitats, palm oil production is directly linked to the destruction of these species. It is thought the extreme smoke and haze affecting large parts of Asia are linked to the palm oil industry, too.
The effects of palm oil production
Illegal or unsustainable production is forcing indigenous, local communities out of the rainforest - along with these animals too. Another huge concern is the part palm oil plays in global warming. Tearing down the rainforest at such a rapid rate releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Up to 80% of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions are directly linked to deforestation, making it the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases according to Rainforest Action Network.
Is all palm oil bad?
It is possible to find sustainably-sourced palm oil - labels to look out for include RSPO or the Green Palm label. Tesco have pledged that by 2015 they will only sell products that are RSPO certified and that are fully traceable, so fingers crossed more produers and food manufacturers will follow suit.
In actual fact - palm oil itself isn't bad, per se. Virgin, un-processed palm oil is actually very good for you because it's high in medium chain fatty acids (similar to coconut oil). But the heat-processed and refined palm oil commonly found in our food doesn't have any of these helpful properties. So not only is it bad for the environment for the reasons outlined above, over-consumption could be bad for our health too.
How you can help
Because palm oil is so prevalent, it's very tricky to cut it out of your diet altogether. Many products hide palm oil very well under names such as Elaeis Guineensis or Palmitic Acid - difficult to spot! If any ingredient includes the word "palm" then it's fair to assume it originates from palm. The key is to get into the habit of reading labels! If a label doesn't specifically say that the palm oil has been sustainably sourced, it's safe to assume it's not.
Another way you can avoid using unsustainable palm oil is to avoid buying processed, pre-prepared foods as much possible. Cooking from scratch means you can control exactly what you're eating, and avoid guilt-inducing ingredients like palm oil.
The last way you can help is by helping to spread the word. Sign-up for updates from the WWF and the Rain Forest Foundation, and tell your friends and family about the harm palm oil is inflicting on our world. The more we put pressure on manfuacturers and retailers by demanding sustainable palm oil and voting with our wallets, the faster things are likely to change!
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