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Palm Oil - The Slimy Truth


The subject under our microscope today seems like a harmless, non-controversial topic - palm oil, but it’s not. Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree and is widely used in processed foods and personal products and is now the most prevalent form of vegetable oil produced in the world. It has gained negative attention in recent times because it is high in saturated fats and its production is contributing to the destruction of orangutan and tiger habitats whilst creating an environmental hazard in the way of carbon emissions. There are those who argue that palm oil provides poor communities with the means to earn a living - so who’s right and is there a middle ground?

To meet the wide and ever increasing demand for palm oil, natural habitats in rainforest areas are being decimated to make way for palm oil trees. The tree flourishes in these wet, warm zones and as a consequence, thousands of hectares of native flora are being slashed and burned to accommodation these crops. This method of clearing the land releases carbon pollution into the air and leads to the decimation of many animal populations, including orangutans, who are burnt to death or die of starvation after their food source is gone. On the positive side, these crops require less land per ton of oil produced, than crop-based oilseeds such as rape (canola) seed, sunflower and soybean. 0.26 hectares of land is needed to produce one ton of palm oil, however the other oil producing crops required between 1.5 - 3 hectares to produce the same volume.

Another argument against palm oil is a health based one. Palm oil is used in many foods including margarine, popcorn, chocolate and biscuits. It was assumed healthy because it does not contain transfats - however, despite what was previously believed it is not healthy. Palm oil has been used to replace other bad fats but a recent study conducted by scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Centre on Aging at Tufts University Boston, Maas, has found that the level of LDL (the bad) cholesterol in the human body increased when palm oil was consumed. This finding showed that palm oil is not a good substitute for other unhealthy fats such as hydrogenated soybean.

The other worrying thing about having palm oil in foods is that we can’t tell which packaged food contains it as it is listed as ‘vegetable’ oil. A recent bill for truth in labeling, regarding palm oil, was put to the vote in the Australian Parliament, however the bill was rejected. Fortunately there are websites that give information on which foods contain these oils, although they are not as comprehensive as I would like.

If you are trying to avoid products with palm oil, because their production is leading to the annihilation of orangutan habitat, you also need to avoid non-food products such as soap and makeup. Ingredients to watch out for, which may be derived from palm oil, include cocoa butter equivalent (cbe), cocoa butter substitute (cbs), emulsifiers (E471), palm olein, steareth-20, sodium lauryl sulphate and stearic acid. Some of these ingredients are dangerous to our health regardless of where they are derived (if you need more information on sodium lauryl sulphate see some of our previous articles). A list on some products to avoid can be found at this website.

An argument against palm oil is that where there is destruction of animal habitat, there is also destruction of human habitat as well. There are many villagers who have been displaced by these plantations and palm oil companies. The companies argue they are providing employment to local, poor communities but are these people seeing benefits or are they being used virtually as slave labour?

To mitigate some of the negative factors an organisation comprised of different players in the palm oil economic playing field, as well as environmentalists, has been created. This organisation is called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). They have, and are still, putting systems in place to create a more sustainable industry which has less impact on the environment and is fair to the native peoples in the areas being farmed. Some companies are sourcing palm oil from complying palm oil producers, however as a consumer, it is hard for us to know which end products contain RSPO approved palm oil and which don’t.

Clearly this is an environmental and health issue that has two sides. I, for one, don’t want to eat food which contains this unhealthy oil, and if I can’t even tell if palm oil is in my food how will I know if it is from a sustainable plantation or not? I think that, although there is an economic cost for truth in labeling and it may cost some communities their livelihood, I would rather have healthier fats in my processed food and know that orangutans and tigers are not being killed and misplaced. My vote, at this time, is against palm oil - what’s yours?

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Dionne Lister was born and raised in Sydney and apart from some minor overseas travel hasn’t moved anywhere else. She met her husband through surfing however has had no time for that lately because of her two young children, kindly bestowed upon her by said husband.

She is sensible and works to earn money, however loves writing in her spare time and wishes, as most creative people do, that she could earn her living from such a past-time. Dionne hopes her articles are informative and entertaining and would love some adoring fan-mail ;-) or  visit her blog.


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