Palm oil may seem like the latest item to hit the food world, but it's been around for decades. After World War II, improvements in palm oil technology and transportation brought it to convenience and snack food manufacturing on an industrial scale. Palm oil -- made from the fruit of the oil palm tree -- has the perfect properties for food production; it's odorless, tasteless and solid at room temperature, which provides for consistent texture, mouth-feel and extended shelf-life in products like baked goods, fried foods and pizzas. Palm oil has gained in popularity, as food manufactures look for a substitute for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) -- the source of dangerous trans fats, which have been increasingly banned across the globe (the U.S. FDA is considering banning them, too.)
But palm oil is rich in saturated fats, which raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol. (The American Heart Association recommends keeping saturated fat levels at less than 7 percent of calories.) If the FDA's ban on PHOs is successful, the food industry is likely to replace them with palm oil, consequently adding more saturated fats to hundreds of food products consumed every day, resulting in unintended health consequences.
There is concern that much of the palm production is unsustainable, with complex issues relating to decreased biodiversity, soil degradation, displacement of local people, land rights, and species endangerment. Palm oil is produced in Thailand, Nigeria and Colombia, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia, where 85 percent of global palm oil production and exportation occurs. Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, was once widely forested in biologically diverse rainforests; today, only half of the rainforests remain due to land clearing for palm oil plantations. This area is home to more than 3,000 animal species, including Sumatran tigers, pygmy elephants, rhinoceros and orangutans. According to the Rainforest Action Network, 45 million more acres of rainforest will be converted into palm oil plantations by 2020.
While it may seem logical to simply switch to another type of vegetable oil such as sunflower, soybean or canola oil, doing so would actually lead to more land use and increased poverty. This is because the palm oil trees produce 4 to 10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land, and millions of families earn their living in the palm oil industry. The clear answer is supporting sustainably produced palm oil by companies that are dedicated to preserving existing forests with concentrations of biodiversity, reducing the use of pesticides, and treating workers fairly.
In 2003 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil. You can recognize products made from sustainable palm oil because they carry the RSPO Trademark, which allows consumers to make environmentally responsible purchases.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit http://www.environmentalnutrition.com.)
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