What Is Palm Oil & Why Should We Stop Using it?

What Is Palm Oil & Why Should We Stop Using it?

As Iceland becomes the first UK supermarket to pledge to remove palm oil from its own-brand products, the controversial vegetable oil is once again making headlines. But what exactly is palm oil and why is it so bad for the environment? We found out...

What’s the latest?

Iceland has become the first major British supermarket to pledge to remove palm oil from all its own-brand food, in a bid to halt the ongoing destruction of tropical rainforests in south-east Asia. Palm oil – a cheap and mass-produced form of vegetable oil – has already been taken out of 50% of Iceland’s own-label range, with the rest set to be reformulated by the end of the year.

Remind me – what exactly is palm oil?

Like sugar, palm oil is an ingredient that can be found in anything from nut butter to bread, crisps and ice-cream to beauty and household products. A type of vegetable oil, palm oil is derived from the fruit grown on the African oil palm tree. Known for its versatility and low production costs, palm oil is found in more than 50% of all British supermarket products. Once only found on the African continent, the tree is now also grown in Asia, North America and South America to meet rising demand for palm oil, which is expected to double further by 2050, according to the Rainforest Foundation.

Why is it so controversial?

To get palm oil you need to chop down trees, but this isn’t some small-scale operation – it’s deforestation on a mass level which, according to Greenpeace, shows no sign of slowing down. Recent research found almost 24 million hectares of Indonesia’s rainforest were destroyed between 1990 and 2015 – an area almost the size of the UK. Separate studies discovered there were nearly 3m hectares of deforestation between 2012 and 2015 – that’s one football pitch every 25 seconds. Such deforestation is pushing many species towards extinction, too – recent studies show that Bornean orangutan numbers more than halved between 1999 and 2015, with only 70,000 to 100,000 now remaining. Only a small percentage of the palm oil used across the world comes from an officially approved sustainable source.

How does it weigh up nutrition wise?

The processed food industry tends to bill palm oil as a healthier alternative to harmful trans fats. Though it may be the lesser of two evils, palm oil still isn’t perfect – it’s high in saturated fat and studies have shown it could actually raise LDL cholesterol (that’s the bad stuff).

And you can find it in beauty products?

Absolutely. Palm oil and its derivatives lurk in an astounding 70% of global cosmetics. Lipsticks, for example, rely on palm oil as it holds colour well, doesn’t melt at high temperature and leaves virtually no taste. It’s also used as a conditioning agent in shampoo. Unilever, which buys more palm oil than most other consumer goods conglomerates, for use in products like Dove soap and Pond’s cold cream, recently committed to tracing its entire supply to sustainable sources by 2019. Other big names, such as L’Oréal, have also pledged to follow suit.

Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil?

Yes, but it’s tricky to find. Some organic food and beauty brands go to great lengths to ensure the palm oil they use is conflict-free, often sourcing the ingredient from Ecuador, which is fair trade. An association of industry and NGO members have been working together since 2004 under the name Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), although critics claim it has done little to halt environmental destruction. And while there’s now a legal requirement to display palm oil in products, the myriad uses for the ingredient means it can be obscured under as many as 200 different names, e.g. palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil and sodium kernelate.

The bottom line?

Nutrition wise, palm oil is on a par with other oils and should always be consumed in moderation but it’s the environmental impact everyone’s talking about. Make an effort to read labels in the supermarket, although you may have to do a little more research when it comes to non-food items such as cosmetics and cleaning products. When it comes to cooking, avoid processed foods and try to cook with other oils – think sunflower, olive and rapeseed, which has the lowest saturated fat of any culinary oil, and less than half of olive oil.
For more information visit RainforestFoundationUK.org

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