The Truth About Palm Oil - What You Need to Know
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is a tropical vegetable oil derived from the flesh of the fruits of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), a large evergreen native to parts of Asia and Africa. The palm is a massive tree that can grow up to 80 feet tall and live for 50 years. The fruit contains both oil and palm hearts, the seed-like source of palm kernel oil. The most common way to extract the oil from the palm fruit is by mechanical pressing. Most of the world’s supply of palm oil comes from Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. By some estimates, palm oil is the most economically important crop in Malaysia, accounting for about 8% of its total exports. Palm oil can be found in everything from baked goods and snacks to packaged cookies, crackers and peanut butter, frozen pizza, margarine and mayonnaise, shampoos, cosmetics and cleaning products. It’s also used in biofuel and as a feedstock in the production of fuel alcohol (ethanol).
How is Palm Oil Produced?
Most palm oil is grown on plantations that are cleared from tropical rainforest. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, it takes about 5.5 acres of cleared land to produce just one ton of palm oil. The rate at which tropical rainforests are disappearing is staggering, driven largely by this growing demand for palm oil. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Indonesia’s forests have decreased from 26 million acres in 1990 to only 6 million in 2017. Malaysia’s forests have shrunk from 14.7 million acres in 1990 to only 4.5 million in 2016. The clearing of tropical rainforests is a major source of greenhouse gas pollution. It also threatens the existence of rare and endangered species that inhabit these ecosystems, including orangutans, tigers, rhinos and pygmy elephants. Indeed, about 85% of the world’s palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, this means that the environmental and social consequences of palm oil production are most acutely felt in these two countries.
The Pros of Palm Oil
Palm oil has a high melting point, making it an excellent choice for baked goods like cookies, crackers, and breads. It also has the ability to improve the texture of baked goods by making them more tender and moist. Palm oil is also relatively low in saturated fat and rich in nutrients like vitamins A and E, two antioxidants that may play a role in preventing heart disease. Although palm oil has become a controversial ingredient, there’s no evidence that it’s any less healthy than other oils, including rapeseed and sunflower oils. In fact, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Health Promotion found that palm oil may be healthier than other vegetable oils, including coconut oil.
The Cons of Palm Oil
Like other vegetable oils, palm oil is high in unhealthy saturated fats. It also contains a high amount of sodium (salt), which can increase your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition to its high saturated fat content, palm oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which some research suggest may increase the risk of heart disease. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that your body cannot produce on its own, so they must be consumed in the diet. Studies suggest that excessive omega-6 fatty acid consumption from vegetable oils may contribute to inflammation, which has been linked to a range of serious health problems, including heart disease and certain cancers.
Should You Avoid Palm Oil?
The debate over palm oil is not whether it’s healthy or unhealthy. Instead, the controversy centers on its environmental impact. The most responsible way for consumers to use palm oil is to purchase products that are certified sustainable, meaning they’ve been grown on plantations that are environmentally friendly. Buying sustainably grown palm oil products will help ensure that the industry is managed in a way that doesn’t further imperil the rainforests or threaten the survival of endangered species. It may also help lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming. On the other hand, the most responsible course of action for those who want to avoid palm oil is to avoid processed foods, period. Healthy, balanced diets don’t contain any oils. Instead, they focus on eating whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and whole grains. These plant-based foods naturally contain healthy fats, along with vitamins, minerals and fiber that can promote good health.