Palm Oil Facts and Fiction
Is it a medical miracle, an environmental disaster, both, or neither?
Want to get confused really fast, with no annoying delay? Read about palm oil on the Internet. Try to see if it's good for you or bad for you, or whether it's an environmental disaster or harmless. If it's good for developing nations or bad for them. If it's a medical miracle or snake oil. Even sources you trust are likely to give conflicting interpretations. Today we're going to look at the basics about palm oil, and dissect some of the many pop-culture claims attributed to it.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil which comes from (obviously) certain palm trees. There are three kinds: the regular kind derived from palm fruit pulp which is the main topic for today, and palm kernel oil and coconut oil, which come from the kernels of palm fruits and are very similar to one another. Palm oil is refined and sold worldwide as a commodity. Its main use is in food. It can be processed into cooking oil, or into an ingredient in baked goods and many other food products. It's also used to make biodiesel. But as a food product, it's inexpensive and widely used, particularly in developing nations as an important calorie source. It is the world's most consumed vegetable oil. Worldwide, the average person consumes 7.7kg of it each year, a number that has more than doubled in the past two decades.
Controversies surrounding palm oil fall into two main categories. First is that since 85 percent of it is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia, it has a huge economic, social, and environmental impact on those nations. Those pressures bring good things and bad things. The second category of controversy is health effects of eating it, and we'll talk about that first.
As an oil, palm oil's principal ingredients are fats. A quick review on dietary fat: the types we hear about most often are differentiated by whether and how much they are hydrogenated. Regular fat naturally has its carbon atoms mostly linked together with double bonds. An industrial process called hydrogenation breaks those bonds and caps them off with hydrogen atoms, preventing them from re-attaching to other carbon atoms. This physical re-shaping of the molecule, consisting of a long chain of these bonds, is what governs the way it interacts with our bodies biochemically.
Fat that has not been hydrogenated at all is called unsaturated fat, and it's of least concern for health. Fat that has had all of its carbon bonds hydrogenated is called saturated fat (saturated because it's full of all the hydrogen it can hold), and saturated fat is where we start to see health concerns. Saturated fats raise cholesterol levels in your blood, so they should be minimized in your diet. But even worse than saturated fat is partially hydrogenated fat, also called a trans fat. Some carbon bonds are double, and some are hydrogenated. The physical shape of this molecule encourages it to do all kinds of things we don't want it to do in our bodies, and it's the worst offender for raising your cholesterol and clogging your arteries. (Some trans fats do occur naturally, but the vast majority in our food are those that we make and add ourselves.)
So, we might ask, why do we even make trans fats? We discovered in the 1950s, before its adverse health effects were understood, that it's awesome for food products. Trans fats have just the right melting point to make a spreadable product with really nice consistency, and they also allow frying oil to be used over and over again.
Palm oil consists of about half saturated fats, and half unsaturated fats — but no trans fats, and yet they offer virtually the same benefits for food products. Lard is just the same. Together, lard and palm oil comprise the most common natural sources of saturated fats, mixed with unsaturated fats. This blend gives them cooking properties comparable to many of the trans fats, and they both come in solid blocks that are soft. Like trans fats, palm oil makes spreadable products nice to spread — a notable example of which is the chocolate hazelnut spread Nutella, which has been in the news for consisting of more palm oil than hazelnuts, which works great for what that product is.
But palm oil is hardly a miracle wonder oil. Although it's free of trans fats, the research is mixed on whether it's any better or not. Moving from trans fats to saturated fats is like jumping out of the frying pan into the boiling cauldron; it's not really all that much better. Moving toward unsaturated fats is always going to be the more sensible direction.
But for some, particularly in developing nations where vitamin A deficiency is common, unrefined palm oil is actually a beneficial part of the diet. Unrefined, it's called red palm oil, due to its high beta-carotene content. Beta-carotene partially converts to vitamin A in the intestinal wall. In such regions of the world, it's both a convenient source of much-needed calories, and a useful dietary supplement.
That, however, is where its benefits end. Contrary to the claims made by Dr. Oz and any number of other snake oil salesmen, no form of palm oil has any kind of miracle health benefits. In 2013, Dr. Oz said that red palm oil "helps stop the signs of aging inside and out", that it can "fight belly fat, and combat heart disease", that it can "[extend] the warranty of nearly every organ in your body" and that "this mega-oil may very well be the most the most miraculous find of 2013". The homeopath whom Oz brought on his show to continue the promotion said palm oil will "protect us against Alzheimer's", "increase blood circulation", and "reduce incidence of dementia". If that's not enough, Oz then claimed that people who took red palm oil "lowered their bad cholesterol by nearly 40% in one month", and summed up with the exact opposite of the truth that it will "remove plaque build-up in arteries". But Dr. Oz is hardly the only promoter of these flagrantly untrue and implausible claims. Search any online bookstore for palm oil (or coconut oil) and you will be simultaneously amazed and depressed by the number of authors and publishers who brazenly promote this unhealthy additive that you should be trying to minimize as the secret to miracle super health. There is not a word of truth in any of it.
The false health claims aside, these are the basic reasons why palm oil is everywhere and growing fast: great for food products, free of trans fats, and inexpensive. That's great for Malaysia and Indonesia, also Nigeria and a dozen other countries that are also producers.
And this segues into our second area of palm oil controversy, the social and environmental impacts. There have been plenty of complaints about human rights and low-paid workers in the palm oil industry. However, a review of the economics of these nations reveals that this problem is endemic in many industries in the regions where it exists, and has nothing to do with the palm oil industry specifically. So this is not a compelling argument in the question of whether palm oil itself is a good or a bad product.
But there is one area where we can pull the focus much tighter on palm oil specifically compared to other industries, and that's deforestation. Deforestation is always a tricky mine field of a subject to discuss. Emotions run high. Misinformation does exist. As worldwide demand for palm oil escalates, producing countries are tearing out their old growth forests and planting oil palms. Loss of habitat has been especially hard on orangutan populations. Loss of forest releases previously sequestered carbon into the Earth's carbon cycle. The oil palms absorb some of it back in, but tidy groves contain far less biomass than thick natural forests. Peatlands, much of which have been reclaimed for oil palms, can contain more than 20 times as much carbon as the forests above them. In 20 years, some 150,000 square kilometers of forest have been converted into oil palms. That's a drop in the bucket compared to world agriculture overall, but it's a step in very much the wrong direction.
So much so that in January of 2018, the European Union instituted a ban on palm oil in biodiesel, a phase-out to be completed by 2021. Deforestation was the reason given. Palm oil producers, however, charged that the real reason was protectionism to favor grapeseed and other products suitable for biodiesel that are produced inside Europe. There is probably an element of truth in both claims.
Addendum: A lot of you have written in thinking that I meant rapeseed instead of grapeseed. Although rapeseed is commonly used for biodiesel, grapeseed — a waste byproduct of European wine production — is what the palm oil producers were talking about. —BD
This is a good place to talk about the RSPO, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. This is an industry group that was formed in 2004 and consists of representatives from all areas of the palm oil industry. Faced with mounting criticisms of the social and environmental impacts of palm oil, the RSPO seeks to certify practices which meet sustainability standards of international watchdogs, notably including the World Wildlife Fund which takes a special interest in the orangutans of Indonesia. About 40% of global palm oil production is certified as sustainable by the RSPO, however criticism of its standards and of its inherent conflict of interest remains; and rightly so, whenever any industry is allowed to self-certify. The harshest critics of deforestation, such as Greenpeace, have claimed that RSPO simply bends to the whims of its largest and most influential member producers. As it's hard to develop new palm crops without finding land, RSPO standards have historically looked the other way on deforestation. It's an issue they are keenly aware of, and the situation does seem to be improving as they move toward zero deforestation standards. Their next-generation certification, RSPO NEXT, uses third-party certification. Regardless, RSPO certified palm oil is probably going to be the most environmentally friendly available, if imperfect.
So that's a basic overview. Palm oil in your diet is not the end of the world so long as you keep it in reasonable amounts — the occasional pie crust is not going to hurt you. Think of it as you would any confectionery item; something to be minimized. Do not look to it in any form as a miracle cure, or part of a weight loss or anti-aging program — all of that is complete nonsense. If you do buy a product that contains palm oil, choose one that bears the RSPO certification logo — the packaging should show a little palm icon that says Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (unlike many other logos affixed to certain food products, this one is actually likely to mean something significant). As far as all the wild Internet rumors go, the only one that has a large amount of truth to it is the deforestation — and that's one that every consumer can help to curb.
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