The Environmental Impacts Of Palm Oil Production… Is Sustainable Palm Oil Possible?
Did you know palm oil is the most widely consumed plant-based oil in the world?
This may come as a surprise to many because if you were to look in the average household’s pantry, you probably wouldn’t even find a bottle of palm oil. Look on the back of half the packaged foods in a supermarket, however, and you’ll find palm oil, or a derivative of palm oil, on the ingredient list.
What Is Palm Oil?
Primarily harvested from the pulp of the African palm tree fruit (Elaeis giuneenis), palm oil is naturally reddish-orange in color due to its high beta-carotene content. To a lesser extent, the South American palm tree (Elaeis oleifera) is also harvested.
Red palm oil is widely cultivated throughout regions in Brazil, Africa, and Asia.
Palm oil should not be confused with palm kernel oil, which is harvested directly from the kernel, not the fruit, of the palm tree. Further, palm oil is not coconut oil, which is harvest from coconut palm tree.
What Are The Uses Of Palm Oil?
Palm oil’s popularity has grown in recent years due to its versatility and the plant’s high yield. It is relatively cheap to manufacture compared to other vegetable oils. Its utility also extends beyond food.
Palm oil is commonly used in the manufacturing of:
- Bath soaps
- Packaged sweets like ice-cream, chocolate, and cookies
- Instant noodles
- Packaged bakery goods, like bread and muffins
- Washing detergents
Due to its long shelf life after hydrogenation, palm oil is highly desired by the food manufacturing industry. On an agricultural level, it produces the highest yield per acre than any other plant-based oil. Hence it’s hard to see what’s not to love about palm oil.
Except there’s a catch.
The History Of Palm Oil
Dating back thousands of years, palm oil’s origins can be traced to West Africa. Archaeologists have even discovered casks of palm oil buried within Egyptian tombs!
During the Industrial Revolution, the Europeans caught wind of palm oil’s versatility, and as a result began trading it internationally. The British used palm oil as an industrial lubricant for machinery and as a base in soap and candlestick making.
Then they discovered ts utility as an edible, nutrient-rich cooking oil! From here, palm oil rapidly gained in popularity, and its commercial trade value increased.
Money poured into Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. Technology improved the manufacturing of edible refined oils, causing large-scale production and investments in palm oil plantations to rise rapidly.
Unfortunately, this unruly growth period brought with it mass-destruction of vital rain forests. This is most evident in Indonesia where half its native rain forests have now been cleared for palm oil plantations.
And herein lies the catch…
The Environmental Impacts Of Palm Oil Production
Palm oil’s popularity has spurred a rapid increase in monoculture plantations, causing severe environmental impact (source).
In recent years, the palm oil industry has been directly linked to the habitat destruction of many endangered species. Most noteworthy is the plight of the orangutan.
Political corruption, human rights abuses, illegal logging, and widespread deforestation across countries like Borneo, Indonesia, and Malaysia adds more fuel to the fire and reveal how convoluted the palm oil industry really is.
Plantations are established in dense rain forest regions where the palm tree naturally thrives. Unfortunately, the costs to the local environment and its native animal inhabitants are insurmountable. In countries where palm tree plantations thrive, labor costs are cheap, environmental laws are lacking, and political agendas are skewed in favor of the largest paycheck (source).
In learning all this, it’s understandable how most people want to take no part in supporting such an industry. It’s important to take a deeper look into more sustainable choices.
Is Sustainable Palm Oil Possible?
To address the increasing concern surrounding the negative impact of the palm oil industry, a certification body was established known as RSPO – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
This certification is an assurance to consumers that the palm oil product they are buying has been held to a higher and more rigorous set of standards to ensure the sustainability of production. Yet even at this point in time, RSPO-certified growers comprise only around 18% of the industry.
Today the RSPO principles, criteria, and indicators extend far beyond conserving primary rain forest. They require a comprehensive, independent social and environmental impact assessment, which includes:
- Preventing further loss to primary forests
- Conserving other natural environments in the region
- Mitigating negative impacts on soil
- Avoiding further habitat destruction of endangered species
- Developing of water- and energy-efficient production methods
- Promoting biodiversity in the local region
- Fair-trade agreements for employees, farmers, and their families
- Ensuring human and labor rights are respected
- Legal compliance and preventing conflict regarding rights to use of land
Wilderness Family Naturals sources palm oil from an RSPO-certified company based on a small island off the coast of Malaysia.
As the world’s second largest producer of palm oil, the Malaysian palm oil industry has gone to great lengths in recent years to develop more environmentally conscious practices. Its investment into research and development into more sustainable practices has raised Malaysia’s standards to some of the highest in the world.
Why Cook With Palm Oil?
Despite palm oil’s bad reputation, it can actually be a very healthy cooking oil as long as it’s not hydrogenated. Non-hydrogenated palm oil, high in healthy fats and phytonutrients, doesn’t go rancid quickly and is a high-heat oil. High in antioxidants, palm oil contains more vitamin A and vitamin E than any other plant-based oil (source).
The fatty acid composition of palm oil is distinctively different from other vegetable oils. It comprises of 50% saturated fats, 40% unsaturated and 10% polyunsaturated fat (source).
While coconut oil is largely touted as the number one oil for its high content of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA — the kind of fat your body can burn more easily), palm oil is the next best oil you can find in this regard. It contains about 50% MCFA.
What Makes Wilderness Family Naturals Palm Oil Different?
Wilderness Family Naturals’ red palm oil is sustainably sourced, RSPO-certified, and minimally processed to preserve the nutritional qualities of which red palm oil is regarded. Those qualities include:
- Red palm oil contains more beta-carotene, vitamin E, and tocotrienols than any other oil (source).
- Red palm oil remains stable when used for cooking.
One of the most important things to consider when purchasing palm oil is to make sure it is cold-pressed and minimally refined. Conventional palm oil is highly processed and hydrogenated which oxidizes the fats.
Damaging the fats in this way increases peroxide formation (source). This negates the health benefits of palm oil and can actually cause inflammation in your body.
In contrast, WFN’s red palm oil is processed within hours of harvest to ensure freshness and quality second to none.
After the sustainable palm oil is harvested and pressed, the oil is left to rest where the saturated fat solidifies and falls to the bottom of the vat. The top liquid portion is decanted to remove the free fatty acids. As a result, this helps to extend the shelf-life of the oil and preserves the rich reddish-orange color and fat-soluble vitamins.
Additionally, it is not hydrogenated, nor processed with solvent such as hexane, and does not contain any trans-fatty acids. Furthermore, WFN’s red palm oil is high in oleic acid; a mono-unsaturated fatty acid also found in olive oil.
In addition to red palm oil as a standalone product, WFN also carries a blend of red palm oil and coconut oil. This Popcorn Oil is very much like a butter substitute, but without the hydrogenated oils. This product is probably misnamed (something WFN will rectify) because it is an excellent, and stable cooking oil. It also happens to be perfect for buttery yellow popcorn!
Did you know about the environmental impacts of palm oil production? Do you use palm oil? Have you found a source for sustainable palm oil?
- Emily Uebergang