Palm oil has been cultivated for more than 5000 years and is the most widely used and consumed vegetable oil in the world today, with it being found in many packaged products sold in supermarkets worldwide. It is not only found in foods such as pizza dough, instant noodles, ice-cream, margarine, chocolate, biscuits and bread; but also in products such as biodiesel, soap, detergent, shampoo and lipstick.
Palm oil is an exceptional ingredient in many food products as it has unique cooking properties that are preserved even under high temperatures. Due to the fact that it is odourless, and has a smooth and creamy texture it is thought of as a perfect ingredient for many recipes. Furthermore, palm oil has a natural preservative effect and so renders an extended shelf life on products that contain it.
Palm oil is the most efficient source of vegetable oil as it is the highest-yielding and requires less than half the land required by other crops (eg, soybean, sunflower or rapeseed) to produce the same amount of oil, which makes it the cheapest vegetable oil to produce. Palm oil has contributed immensely to the economic growth of many countries worldwide and has contributed to reducing poverty.
Why is Palm Oil a Problem?
It is now widely known that the use of palm oil and its rapid expansion threatens some of the planet’s most important and sensitive habitats. Palm oil only grows in tropical regions such as in tropical rainforests, and plantations are spreading across many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to the detriment of the tropical rainforests. With the uncontrolled clearing of these rainforests, irreplaceable and biodiverse-rich environments have been lost. Furthermore, these rainforests are vital habitats for many endangered species, including elephants, orang-utans, rhinos and tigers. In addition to the problems surrounding the sustainability of palm oil cultivation, there are other issues in the use of palm oil, which include its effect on cardiovascular health and the possible accumulation of pollutants during refining.
Should We Stop Using Palm Oil?
Evidence has come to light that avoiding the use of palm oil altogether has even greater detrimental effects. As palm oil is the most efficient vegetable oil to grow it takes less land to produce than other vegetable oils. Hence, stopping the use of palm oil is likely to lead to companies using other vegetable oils in their products, which have an even greater impact on the environment due to the increased land that is required for their growth and thus even larger areas of the rainforest being destroyed for cultivation of the oil.
Secondly, there are millions of farmers in tropical regions eg, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and Thailand that work in the cultivation of palm oil and rely on it to earn their living. Halting the production of palm oil will render the farmers unable to support their families and will lead to increased poverty in these regions.
Finally, replacing palm oil with other types of oil is not always possible due to the exceptional properties of palm oil as a food ingredient. Shifting to the use of other oils would not give the foods the same texture and taste that palm oil does.
The Spanish Consensus on Palm Oil
In light of the concerns surrounding palm oil, in July 2018, Spanish experts thought it timely to conduct a multidisciplinary forum with ten internationally recognised scientific experts in areas such as dietetics, food, human and animal nutrition, physical activity, public health, sustainability and toxicology. Their aim was to develop a consensus on palm oil by analysing the existing knowledge, defining research needs and agreeing on what should be conveyed to the consumer, with an evidence-based point of reference.
The Amsterdam Declarations Partnership, which is the governments of Denmark, France, Germany the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Norway and Italy working together on sustainable supply chains, are working towards deforestation-free, sustainable products and forecasts the use of 100% sustainable palm oil in Europe by 2020. It is believed that awareness about choosing sustainable products will help to maintain local economies and environments in the countries that currently produce palm oil.
Reviewing current scientific evidence has shown that a moderate intake of palm oil within a healthy diet presents no health risk and there is no evidence that justifies changing fat intake recommendations. In addition, there is no evidence associating palm oil consumption with an increased risk of developing cancer.
The food industry is interested in assuring safe, sustainable and high-quality products. The use of certified sustainable palm oil is increasing and the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) foundation was founded 15 years ago and is responding to the environmental impact of palm crops and certifies the sustainability of palm oil production.
What is the Answer?
Palm oil can be produced in a responsible and sustainable manner that respects not only the environment but also the communities where it is grown.
It is paramount that the world develops a socially acceptable and environment-friendly production and sourcing of palm oil. In order to achieve this, we as consumers, need to demand an increase in the use of goods produced using such practices. In order for this to happen it is essential to educate the consumer on the importance of selecting sustainable products to contribute to maintenance of the environment and local economies in the producing countries. There is a need for educational institutions, research and technological centres and the media to collaborate to assure the distribution of impartial and balanced information.
In the first instance, we as consumers, can look out for the RSPO label on products to ensure products bought are made with certified sustainable palm oil. Unfortunately, this label is not universally used as many food manufacturers have not updated packaging. In this instance, contact the manufacturer and ask them, or urge them, to use certified sustainable palm oil that is produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
At the end of the day, environmental and social sustainability is far bigger than eliminating single use plastics.
Gesteiro E (2019). Palm Oil on the Edge. Nutrients. Aug 26;11(9).
World Wildlife Fund: Palm Oil. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/palm-oil
Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil: RSPO. https://www.rspo.org/
In-Depth: Palm Oil: Are We Unknowingly Feeding Our Children an Unethical Oil? https://www.nutritional-insight.co.uk/palm-oil-are-we-unknowingly-feeding-our-children-an-unethical-oil/