Palm oil has exploded in popularity in the last decade and is now found in countless products worldwide, thanks to its versatility and potential health benefits.
Consumers who look beyond the product, however, will be shocked to learn how harmful it can be. Palm oil is linked to deforestation, the displacement of people and wildlife, and climate change.
It’s time you knew what you’re consuming.
What Is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil, specifically one made from the fruits of the African oil palm tree. It has gained popularity thanks to its range of uses and possible health benefits. Palm oil is used in prepackaged foods, cosmetics, animal food, and even fuel. It is not an overstatement to say that palm oil is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere.
And so are its plantations. Originally manufactured solely in Central and West Africa—where the oil palm tree is native—it’s since expanded beyond West Africa to Indonesia and Malaysia, where 90% of the world’s palm oil supply currently comes from. Indonesia alone produces 35 million tonnes of palm oil every year, making it the largest producer and exporter among palm oil producers. Its oil palm plantations span over nine million hectares.
West Africa, Indonesia, and Malaysia aren’t the only regions to produce palm oil, though. A total of 42 countries, including some in the Americas, produce over 73 million tonnes of palm oil each year, representing a whopping 40% of all vegetable oil production.
This oil comes in either a crude or refined form, with crude palm oil having a rich orange color that reflects the orange pulp of the oil palm fruit it’s extracted from. Typically, this type of palm oil is used in Southeast Asia and Africa. Refined palm oil, however, is more popular in the United States and Europe and has a pale yellow color.
Palm oil is a popular cash crop because it needs fewer resources, such as land, pesticides, and fertilizers, than oil crops grown for coconut oil, soybean oil, and other oils, making it a more affordable product to grow and trade.
How Is Palm Oil Made?
Palm oil production starts with the planting and growing of palm trees on oil palm plantations, after which their seeds are harvested as the oil’s main ingredient. The trees stay in a nursery for the first eight months, during which they receive daily watering and treatments of pesticides and fertilizers. As soon as they reach eight months old, they’re removed from the nursery and placed in the palm oil plantation proper.
The oil palm trees then receive a similar treatment until they reach 30 months old, when harvesting begins. At this point they’re considered mature, and workers can start harvesting seeds every seven to ten days. The seeds are then taken to a processing mill. When they arrive, they’re sterilized with steam and stripped.
Following the harvest and sterilization, the seeds are separated into crude or refined oils and processed accordingly, extracting oil from either the flesh of the palm fruit to produce palm oil, or the seeds of the fruit to produce palm kernel oil.
To extract the oil, the fruit is pressed into a liquid, which is then screened to ensure it’s contaminant free before being dried. The oil is finally shipped to refineries, where it goes through various production processes depending on what the end product will be and what products it’ll be used in.
Uses of Palm Oil
Palm oil is a versatile ingredient that’s put to a wide range of uses, a versatility enhanced by the fact that it can be either solid or liquid—a benefit it has over alternative oils—and its odorless and colorless nature. It also boasts a smooth and creamy texture, which makes it an appealing ingredient in many foods, such as cakes, biscuits, frying fats, margarine, and chocolate.
It’s estimated that up to 50% of packaged products in supermarkets contain some amount of palm oil, with even toothpaste and deodorant listing it as an ingredient.
Is Palm Oil Healthy?
Palm oil, like other vegetable oils, particularly the non-hydrogenated kind, has been linked to multiple health benefits.
Studies show that it’s an excellent source of beneficial tocotrienols, a chemical in the vitamin E category. Its use in food items is bolstered by the fact it’s high in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Because it’s a vegetable oil, it’s also cholesterol free. Let’s explore these health benefits in depth.
Palm oil is high in antioxidants, especially vitamin E. Vitamin E helps the body in myriad ways, with the most notable being that it helps slow dementia progress, prevent brain lesions, and reduce stroke risks. Animal studies have shown hope that it can help prevent cognitive decline, although further research in humans is needed.
Palm oil has shown mixed results with heart health, but it appears to have a positive impact on heart disease, such as increasing HDL cholesterol levels while reducing LDL cholesterol levels. Studies highlight people with palm oil-heavy diets having healthier cholesterol levels than those who have diets with large amounts of lauric and myristic acids, or trans fats.
Potential health risks
While palm oil offers some potential health benefits, it still isn’t the healthiest cooking oil. That title goes to olive oil. Palm oil is high in saturated fats. These saturated fats cause cholesterol to build up in veins and arteries, which increase heart disease and stroke risks. Because palm oil is present mostly in prepackaged, processed foods, products that contain palm oil are likely also high in added sugar and sodium. If you already practice moderation when eating such foods, the small amount of palm oil you’re consuming likely won’t hurt you. Stick with other, healthier vegetable oils for cooking at home, like olive and avocado.
Palm Oil’s Environmental Problems
Between 1995 and 2015, palm oil’s production increased from 15.2 million to 62.6 million tonnes per year among palm oil-producing countries. There’s more of it created than any other type of vegetable oil, but this rise in production comes at a cost. The production of palm oil has an increasingly devastating impact on the environment, at multiple levels, in multiple ways.
The cultivation of land for oil palm trees accounts for 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008, with much of this taking place in Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which are areas of megadiversity, or high amounts of plant and animal diversity. A United Nations report in 2007 highlighted the risks associated with these deforestation efforts, claiming that palm oil plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in both countries. More recent reports suggest that 98% of both countries’ rainforests will be gone by the end of 2022. Read that again: 98% of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia will be gone by the end of 2022.
Deforestation has more implications than just cutting down trees. It results in erosion and the depletion of soil quality. The depletion of soil nutrients prevents any potential regrowth of the rainforest. Erosion can lead to landslides and avalanches, sinkholes, and floods. Deforestation also increases carbon dioxide in the air by eliminating the carbon sinks that exist naturally deep in forest soil. And perhaps the saddest of all, deforestation destroys the habitats of countless wildlife species.
The habitat destruction caused by the production of palm oil leads to species endangerment, with the orangutans of Indonesia being the most notorious casualty. Reports in 1990 claimed there were 315,000 orangutans in the wild, while more recent reports claim there are now as few as 55,000. The expansion of palm oil plantations is the primary driver of this loss, with orangutans either being killed during the deforestation efforts or being displaced and struggling to find food, and subsequently dying of starvation.
Should expansion of such plantations occur in Africa, scientists believe it would put the local primate population at risk there as well. Studies show that areas with high palm oil production are also highly populated by primates, leading to fears that this population would be decimated if palm oil production expands.
Greenhouse gas emissions
The removal of forests for oil palm plantations has a domino effect on carbon emissions. Indonesian forests store more carbon per hectare than Brazilian forests, and deforestation releases this carbon into the environment. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, these plantations caused between 2% and 9% of worldwide carbon emissions. Because trees absorb carbon emissions, their removal also prevents the absorption of the greenhouse gases their removal creates. It’s a dangerous cycle.
The removal of trees isn’t the only factor at play here. Peatlands also need to be cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Peatlands store between 18 and 28 times more carbon than forests, carbon that is released into the environment when the peatlands are destroyed. (Peat use is common among keen gardeners, an incongruous truth that should be eliminated tout de suite.)
These carbon emissions fuel climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere, which subsequently leads to changing weather patterns, catastrophic natural disasters, and even the extinction of certain species.
Palm oil plantations fuel air pollution in every country they’re in, with Southeast Asia being particularly affected. Up to 100,000 deaths every year in the region can be directly attributed to forest fires used to make space for these plantations, as well as rice, sugarcane, and maize plantations. Carbon emissions, as well, impact human health, increasing risks of respiratory disease among people who breathe in pollution from the burning of fossil fuels.
Then there are the fertilizers and pesticides used in palm oil’s production once the land has been cleared. Though these chemicals let plantations operate more productively and cheaply, they are full of toxins that contaminate the soil, vegetation, and water supplies, leading to increased rates of leukemia and cancer, as well as causing miscarriages. There are an estimated 385 million unintentional pesticide poisonings every year. Approximately 11,000 of these are fatal.
Palm Oil’s Social Impact
Palm oil’s impact goes much further than harming the environment and posing health risks. It also has a social impact, specifically the treatment of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples that live in Indonesian and Malaysian forests don’t have deeds for their land and often face displacement as their ancestral homes are torn down and burned. Such an impact has already happened in Borneo, where the local population has been removed to make way for palm oil production.
The exploitation of workers’ rights is common in the palm oil industry. In Malaysia alone, between 72,000 and 200,000 children—yes, children—are used in the production process, with these “workers” being forced to labor in harsh conditions for little to no pay. Some are even the victims of human trafficking, with reports of workers having their passports stolen and withheld to force them to continue working. Though rarer, even sexual violence has been reported, with a 16-year-old worker being raped on a plantation and other female workers being subjected to similar treatment. Indonesia’s oil palm plantations aren’t much better.
As Malaysia is responsible for up to 85% of the world’s palm oil supply in combination with Indonesia, the majority of workers in the industry are based in these two countries and could be subjected to such circumstances.
Though Malaysia is cracking down on this to appease customers and businesses in the United States and Europe, such practices are still rampant in the industry. Even then, the crackdown only came after the US issued a 2020 detention order on the oil and related products.
Let’s Talk About Sustainable Palm Oil
While palm oil has a hugely detrimental impact on the environment and other areas, sustainable production of palm oil has emerged as an effective solution. Sustainable palm oil comes with a noticeably lower environmental impact and boasts none of the environmental or social impacts that its standard counterpart has. To achieve this, manufacturers and brands implement sustainable best practices, such as enforcing a zero deforestation policy. These sustainable palm oil policies also extend to employment, with the organizations that certify sustainability demanding fair treatment of employees.
These trends come from multiple initiatives that have been established to oversee and encourage palm oil sustainability, with the World Wildlife Fund helping to establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004. The nonprofit organization focuses on promoting sustainability in the industry and has created a certification program to that effect. To date, however, approximately only 20% of palm oil brands have signed up to the initiative and received this accreditation. Still, multiple corporations have committed to using only sustainably produced palm oil:
- Burger King
- Mars, Inc
Unfortunately, Greenpeace finds “problematic producers who are actively clearing rainforests” are still at large, and the industry still has a way to go before undoing the damage it’s done. Though the shift to certified sustainable palm oil could stop the damage, if not reverse it, it’s still years away. It seems as though a drop in palm oil consumption may be one of the few ways to encourage this, but with the amount of palm oil consumed worldwide, this seems unlikely.
What Is Palm Oil: Wrapping Up
Palm oil, like similar vegetable oils, is destroying the natural world, contributing to climate change and wiping out wildlife species. Combined with the worker abuses it’s linked to, palm oil is more harmful than most consumers may think. No potential health benefits are worth that, although the palm oil industry doesn’t seem likely to change.
While sustainable palm oil is an option, sustainable palm oil production is far from a standard in the industry, which still has decades of damage to undo.