Photo: Jeremy Weate / Flickr
Palm oil is used in half of all packaged products sold in grocery stores in America. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the ubiquitous ingredient can be found in pizza, lipstick, cookies, detergent, and even biodiesel.
While usage goes back nearly 5,000 years, palm oil has developed newfound popularity as a cheap alternative to the trans-fats once found in the majority of packaged foods. For nearly 40 years, palm oil has been a key American ingredient, while its respective industry generates billions of dollars each year.
Not All Palm Oil is Bad
While palm oil may have taken the country by storm, it is also causing major storms along the way. Palm oil comes in two distinct forms: sustainable and non-sustainable.
Sustainable palm oil can often be traced, and derives from plantations that have been built through proper protocols.
Non-sustainable oil, however, is at the other end of the spectrum. It stems from plantations that cannot be accounted for, or were grown through destructive means and pose environmental threats. Rainforests are plowed or burned to make room for these plantations, wounding biodiversity and emitting incredible amounts of CO2.
The biggest dangers presented by non-sustainable palm oil are those directed towards the orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo. Native to only two islands of Indonesia, orangutans have been in serious decline since the 1970s, and now face imminent extinction if change does not occur. Less than 65,000 individuals exist in Borneo today, while numbers in Sumatra have fallen to less than 8,000. Habitat loss is considered their largest threat, and as more room is needed for a growing palm oil industry, lands are disappearing faster than one can think.
“Orangutans are specialists at living in the forest. Without a healthy forest, they simply can’t survive,” Robert Shumaker of the Indianapolis Zoo said. “Generally, orangutans that are displaced and driven out of their home range during the deforestation process have no future, and will die as a result of their habitat being destroyed.”
Palm Oil’s Link to Cancer
With palm oil’s recent link to cancer — which has been called tenuous — it is unclear what will become of the industry’s future.
A new report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) suggests that dangers lie not with palm oil itself, but in how it’s processed. Palm oil does not do well in high temperatures; when boiled or heated above 200 degrees Celsius prior to market entry, it can produce contaminants known as glycidyl fatty acid esters or GE, which experts say pose cancer risks to consumers.
Several retailers in Europe announced they would be removing palm oil from their products upon hearing the news, suggesting that things were already off to a positive start, while others are resistant and slow to comply.
Italy-based Ferrero, which produces the popular hazelnut spread Nutella, argues that palm oil is not only safe, but necessary to create the item’s sweet and ultra-smooth texture.
“Making Nutella without palm oil would produce an inferior substitute for the real product,” purchasing manager Vincenzo Tappela said. “It would be a step backward.”
Ferrero insists that its process for refining palm oil keeps the temperature just below 200 degrees Celsisus and uses reduced pressure to minimize harmful contaminants.
That’s Ferrero — what about everyone else?
Lower Demand Could Aid the Environment
Palm oil stands as the least expensive vegetable oil on the market, which could explain why establishments like Ferrero are so reluctant to give it up, but newfound health concerns birth a number of questions, the first ones being, “What would happen if the world dismissed palm oil for good? What if people’s health was enough of a concern that production suddenly became a thing of the past?”
For starters, we’d witness a fall in one of the world’s largest and most controversial enterprises. Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests would enter a path towards recovery, while environmental crime would slow. It’s impossible to predict how much such crime would cease, but Southeast Asia could expect a welcome break from deforestation and related events.
We might also see a potential increase in orangutan populations. With their homes no longer in harm’s way, apes would be given an opportunity to replenish their numbers, though they’d probably still face duress from trappers and hunters. Orangutans are often sought by poachers for their meat, and the ease of deforestation isn’t likely to lessen this threat, though rainforest growth could make it harder for hunters to find them. Several areas of Indonesia have experienced such massive losses in forest acreage, that the pathways leading to these once hidden utopias now lie in full view, making them easily accessible. A few “rainforest refills” could allow this problem to disappear.
How major food companies design their products could be a third major change. Names like PepsiCo and Pillsbury are major instigators of palm oil demand, and implement the substance into several of their store-bought items. Granted consumers show heightened interest in their health, sales of palm oil items might begin to fall. Companies would have no choice but to replace palm oil and other disparaged ingredients with more acceptable alternatives to stay in business.
This might also help consumers to make better choices and improve their eating habits. Palm oil is often linked to cheap snack foods like chips, cookies, and other low-end eats that bear no nutritional value and can satisfy hunger on the go. Other items, such as carrots sticks, yogurt and fruit can also be eaten quickly, but fight obesity and provide necessary vitamins along the way.
“Every time we enter a supermarket we’re making a choice, conscious or otherwise, if orangutans will survive or die,” Shayne McGrath of Wildlife Asia said. “We as the consumers of this planet are responsible for the realities we see every day in Sumatra – the fires, the destruction-driving extinction of one of the world’s most amazing and iconic species, and for what? A bag of chips or a snack bar when a piece of fruit would have been a better meal anyway? Unbelievable.”
Lagging deforestation efforts could also lead to fewer carbon emissions in South Asia. Burning forests is a common method for clearing land and making room for plantations. Fires release harmful emissions into nearby atmospheres, while trees and shrubbery work to capture them and keep air clean. With more fires and fewer trees, CO2 emissions are running off the map, but should the palm oil industry shrink, air quality could gradually improve over time.
Some sources claim a world without palm oil is just a fantasy. As a global product, palm oil is used in far too many items, and would be near impossible to phase out completely, but perhaps a compromise could be reached – one in which palm oil is no longer included in ingestible products.
This would cut usage by at least half, and decrease universal demand while improving our health. Such tactics aren’t likely to eliminate problems fully, but they could carve a new road by making palm oil easier to control. With fewer products relying on the ingredient, plantations would become expendable and simpler to monitor, which could provide time for rainforests and wildlife to recuperate.