Palm Oil, Good or Bad?

April 15, 2010

Palm oil has been in and out of vogue over the past few decades, gaining polarized media attention regarding its health and environmental implications.

Palm oil has been in and out of vogue over the past few decades, gaining polarized media attention regarding its health and environmental implications. The first truly negative attention palm oil received was in the ’80s, when outraged millionaire industrialist Phil Sokolov suffered a heart attack and started campaigning against the ubiquitous use of tropical oils -such as palm and coconut- in processed foods. Sokolov’s campaign, The Poisoning of America, featured nationwide full-page newspaper adds describing the ‘dangers’ of saturated fats found in tropical oils. Palm oil was subsequently linked to increasing blood cholesterol levels as well as heart disease risk among Americans; a reputation that looms to this day. Palm oil’s most recent media appearance – or more appropriately disappearance- was an announcement from a French Supermarket chain to remove all palm oil in foods citing both health and environmental concerns. 

Palm oil and health:
Palm oil does in fact contain a higher percentage of saturated fat in comparison to ‘heart healthy’ fats, like olive oil, but half of palm oil’s fat content is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated- known to increase HDL, ‘good cholesterol’ and benefit the cardiovascular system. Palm oil is also a rich source of vitamin E. Crude palm oil has a deep red hue and is rich in vitamins such as vitamin A (beta-carotene), minerals, antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Unfortunately the processing and refining required of palm oil found in our baked and processed goods- strips the oil of the majority of these nutrients.

Sokolov was correct that palm oil and other tropical oils are high in saturated fats but, in contrast with animal fats, plant sources do not contain cholesterol. Twenty plus years later, countless research has proven that animal sources of saturated fats pose far greater heart disease risk than their green counterparts; and can be a healthy addition to a varied and balanced diet- something Sokolov’s campaign wasn’t aware of.

The environmental argument:
Currently, the majority of palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, and according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), these countries account for 83 percent of production and 89 percent of global exports. Oil palm is grown as an industrial plantation crop, most often on newly cleared rainforest or peat-swamp forests rather than on already degraded or abandoned agricultural land- something the RSPO is closely monitoring and working to end. Since the ‘70s, the area planted with oil palm in Indonesia and Malaysia has grown over 30-fold and 12-fold respectively. In both countries, the number of critically endangered, and threatened land mammals has increased significantly.

The French supermarket chain that committed to removing palm oil from its products is not entirely justified in doing so. RSPO believes that this move gives the wrong signal both in terms of health and the environment. Sustainably farmed, oil palm yields ten times more oil per acre than soybeans- and is about one-third cheaper. The RSPO cites that oil palm produces more than 34 percent of the world’s eight major vegetable oils on less than 5 percent of the total area. On top of that, the palm oil industry has helped alleviate poverty in both Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Lempert Report supports the use of palm oil in foods, (a more local source would be ideal) but consumers need to understand that moderation is key. In accordance with the RSPO’s objectives, the use of sustainable palm oil products needs to be a combined effort and commitment of all stakeholders, including suppliers, manufacturers, CPG brands, supermarkets and consumers.

Visit the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for more information.