It seems like every year, there is a new cooking oil causing controversy among dieters and dieticians. When you care about what you’re fueling your body with, it’s worth staying informed.
You are always on the hunt for quality ingredients and good recipes that will give your mealtimes some variety. That’s why it’s important to do your research before stocking your household.
We will be talking about palm oil—its drawbacks, benefits, and whether or not you should bring it home.
What Is Palm Oil?
So, you want to know what palm oil is—it’s pretty simple (on the surface, at least). Palm oil comes from oil palms. Like most palms, they tend to grow best in warm, humid climates, especially in Africa and Asia. The oil is made by harvesting and processing the fruits of the palm to turn them into one of two things.
Firstly, you have crude palm oil, which is made from the flesh of the tree's fruit. This is what most store-bought items containing palm oil use.
You can also press the seed of the palm fruit in order to get palm kernel oil. The difference between the two lies primarily in their saturated fat content. The oil from the palm kernel has around 80% saturated fat, whereas the crude oil from the fruit only has about 50%, making it a bit easier on the arteries.
The Good Side of Palm Oil
Palm oil is the same as other vegetable and cooking oils in the sense that it has both benefits and drawbacks. But as usual, people can’t seem to agree on which is which.
For example, palm oil supposedly has some cardiovascular benefits. A few studies have shown that it contains antioxidants that can reduce your risk of certain heart diseases, and it is also a good source of vitamin E.
Ever since the war on trans fats within the food service and commercial food industries started, palm oil has been the go-to alternative for those making anything from french fries and pizza to lipstick and cosmetics.
It is a versatile, easily harvested oil neither firmly ahead of nor far behind other cooking oils in terms of nutritional value. That said, there are some serious potential drawbacks to both the product itself and the current methods of farming and harvesting it.
You’d be hard-pressed to say that palm oil is actively good for you. Here’s why.
The Bad Side of Palm Oil
If you are a food-conscious person or are living a vegan lifestyle, you are familiar with the struggle to find products that are both nutritious and sustainably sourced (like our sweets here at MiiRO). You may also have heard the increasingly negative press that palm oil has been getting the last several years.
To start with, many studies show that the “multitude” of health benefits provided by palm oil is less conclusive than some would have you believe. You see, the difficulty with testing its nutritional value is that it is used for so many different products.
Thanks to palm oil’s high smoke point, it’s very good for frying, so it is heavily used by fast-food chains. It is also added to coffee creamers, ice cream, peanut butter, and various processed snack foods.
Eating lots of processed foods like these over time can have serious negative effects on your health, so while palm oil may not be the sole culprit, it definitely is part of the problem. A diet full of processed foods can lead to increased risk of obesity and related health conditions like diabetes, heart attacks, and renal failure.
The high saturated fat content of palm oil is a risk to cardiovascular health, which at the very least cancels out most of the benefits palm oil might have over its competitors. Many doctors and dieticians instead recommend either olive or avocado oil for any cooking you do.
But even still, you may be asking yourself, “It’s vegan and keto-friendly, isn’t it? Not to mention it doesn’t contain any trans fats or gluten. So what’s the problem? And more importantly, how on earth could it not be vegan friendly when it is literally vegan friendly?”
Well… Let’s dive into the dark side of the thriving palm oil industry and see if we can’t answer those questions.
The Ugly Side of Palm Oil
Up until now, the cardinal sin of palm oil has been its relative mediocrity when compared to other cooking oils. Were that the only reason not to purchase these products, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a controversial industry. However, there’s much more at play here than a lackluster product.
Forests Under Siege
The palm oil industry started primarily in Africa and Asia but has since spread to Central and South America. The methods for farming the palm fruits involve waiting for the trees to mature before cutting them down when they grow too tall for the fruit to be conveniently reached.
This has led to some of the most egregious levels of deforestation and habitat loss in recent history. Since palm oil is in such high demand, more and more acreage is required to meet that demand—and the rainforests are being chopped or burned down to meet those needs. Animal species like orangutans, elephants, and tigers are at high risk, and that’s not even considering the major loss of biodiversity in plants from this deforestation. At present, it’s a major contributor to climate change as well.
As palm oil is one of the world's most frequently used products, this trend shows little sign of stopping.
A Measured Response
The level of species loss and the far-reaching impacts on greenhouse gasses due to the deforestation of rainforest ecosystems led to the formation of The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004.
The RSPO is an international organization dedicated to ensuring that palm oil is grown and harvested in specific locations and using techniques that minimize the negative impact on the environment. Buying RSPO certified products at least ensures that you are having less of an impact on global ecosystems, although it’s definitely not negating the problems entirely.
Despite the best efforts of the RSPO, species loss is still a major issue. In the past 16 years alone, the deforestation caused by the palm oil industry had caused the deaths of an estimated 100,000 orangutans due to habitat loss; and that’s just the orangutans. Many already endangered species have also been strongly affected, including the Pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino.
Solutions. Conclusions. Alternatives.
Palm oil has become an essential part of many industries the world over, and as such, entirely discontinuing its use is not currently viable. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to limit how much palm oil we’re consuming.
As for whether it is a superior option to your other plant-based cooking oils, the answer is no. Both nutritionists and environmentalists agree that there are far better options available to use for your own culinary endeavors.
If you struggle to find products or recipes that don’t include palm oil, take a look at MiiRO. Our site offers a variety of delicious recipes as well as ingredients like our dark chocolate baking chips, that promise to deliver on both nutrition and mouth-watering flavor. Plus, we only use natural, vegan, and keto-friendly ingredients, so you can enjoy a sweet treat without breaking your diet.
At MiiRO, we think that there's more to eating healthy than just how it affects your body. We all live in the world together, and we believe that when we take, we should also give back wherever possible. We hope that after reading this article, you walk away with the ability to make informed decisions about your dietary options and your product choices.