Disclaimer: we are not medical professionals, consult with your doctor before making any kind of change in your diet!
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. Two types of oil can be produced; crude palm oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the kernel, or the stone in the middle of the fruit. Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over 100 years ago as an ornamental tree crop. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply, but there are 42 other countries that also produce palm oil.
Why are we talking about palm oil, you wonder?
Palm oil is in nearly everything – it’s in close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets, everything from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick. It’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel in many parts of the world. This is due to it being an extremely versatile oil that has many different properties and functions. Just as coconut oil, palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature so it can keep spreads spreadable; it is resistant to oxidation and so can give products a longer shelf-life; it’s stable at high temperatures and so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; it’s also odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products. In Asian and African countries, palm oil is used widely as cooking oil, just like we might use sunflower or olive oil here.
So what’s the problem with it?
Well, first of all, there are studies that show it’s not good for you.
One study, which was conducted in women with high cholesterol, showed that levels of small, dense LDL (sdLDL) — the type of cholesterol linked to heart disease — increased with palm oil but decreased with other oils.
Another study found that sdLDL didn’t change in the group that consumed palm oil, while large LDL particles increased. Large LDL particles are considered less likely to cause heart attacks than small, dense LDL particles. Other studies have reported elevations in LDL cholesterol levels in response to consuming palm oil. However, in these studies, LDL particle sizes weren’t measured.
There have also been some animal studies done in this area: one animal study suggests that consuming oil that has been repeatedly reheated may cause plaque deposits in the arteries due to a decrease in the oil’s antioxidant activity. When rats ate food containing palm oil that had been reheated 10 times, they developed large arterial plaques and other signs of heart disease over the course of six months, whereas rats fed fresh palm oil did not.
Couple the health risks with the fact that palm oil is present in almost half of packaged foods, due to its ability to give products a longer shelf-life, and it becomes a problem. Many of the sweets available in supermarkets, even the most famous and beloved chocolate spreads, are packed with palm oil and tonnes of sugar (they tend to come together), not to mention all the other substances that are introduced into processed foods.
In addition to the health risks, palm oil has been and continues to be a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino. This forest loss coupled with the conversion of carbon-rich peat soils is throwing out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. There also remains some exploitation of workers and child labour. These are serious issues that the whole palm oil sector brings into.
All in all, it’s good to know how palm oil affects not only the body, but the environment as well – and take some steps back to reevaluate its place in your diet. And if you feel like using less and less of it, you can always look for food alternatives. For example, we don’t use palm oil in any of our products, due to these reasons, and keep away from all products (be them food or otherwise) that contain it.
So, if you’re looking for palm oil-free products, you have come to the right place!