It's hard to deny the fresh, vibrant flavors of home cooking done in high-quality olive, coconut, or avocado oil. For many westerners, olive oil has been a staple for millennia. However, coconut and avocado have seen growing popularity over the last few decades. All three oils have proven health benefits, delivering the healthy fats our cell membranes need to stay strong.
However, increasing demand means potential environmental side effects, and some are asking questions about the sustainability of popular oil crops. This article will outline how producers extract and process these oils and the environmental challenges their methods present.
Ancient Practices Make the Best Modern Olive Oils
Traditional animal-powered olive presses olives into a paste or pulp. Farmers would then put the pulp in woven baskets made of rushes, palm fronds, willow, or hemp. Then, they would place a massive stone on top to drain the oil and water into a vat. Over time, the oil would rise, allowing the farmer to retrieve it. In addition, olive farmers would often filter the oil to boost its purity, using the oil-drenched olive particles as lamp fuel.
Modern production methods have replaced hand-made equipment with machines, but the same principles prevail. Stackable fiber discs are simpler to clean and maintain than hand-made baskets. In addition, we use centrifuges to separate oil and water swiftly, boosting cleanliness. High-quality olives provide great-tasting "cold-pressed" "extra virgin" oils.
On the other hand, low-quality olives are heated to eliminate contaminants, but the taste suffers. Nevertheless, modern oil facilities may maintain excellent quality by regularly cleaning grindstones, fiber discs, and centrifuges.
Extra virgin olive oil can be sustainable if the plantations are traditionally run. However, this is a labor-intensive process, leaving open the possibility of workforce inequities. In an ideal system, the laborers would receive just compensation, the olive trees would receive no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and the production facilities would exclusively use cold pressing. Under these circumstances, extra virgin olive oil production can be a net carbon sink.
Unfortunately, intensive cultivation often relies on unnaturally high tree density along with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Moreover, some producers use chemicals to purify the oil, leaving the pulp highly toxic and unusable. The results of an industrial approach to olive oil production are increased water runoff pollution, desertification, and chemical pollution.
Avocados Are More Heat Resistant than Olives
Most avocado oil comes from a mechanical extraction like traditional olive oil. However, the main difference is that the oil comes from the meat of the avocado, not the seed. First, the producer needs to remove the skin and the seed. Then, they grind the flesh into a pulp, applying a bit of heat to assist in the separation of oil.
Avocado oil has a higher tolerance to heat than olive oil, so there is a broader range of acceptable heat for avocado oil to be "cold pressed." Again, as with olives, the avocado pulp enters a centrifuge to separate the pulp, water, and oil. The pulp, skin, and seeds often return to the farm for use as fertilizer or animal feed.
Imported Avocado Oil Is Poorly Regulated – Seek Organic
South American cultures have cultivated avocados for over 3,000 years, and the traditional methods (and scale) of production were sustainable. However, increasing demand has caused problems all along the production chain. For example, the carbon footprint of two avocados is more than double that of an entire kilogram of bananas.
In Mexico, where the majority of avocados consumed in the US originate, increased production has led to water depletion and deforestation. Furthermore, growing demand has driven prices so high that the locals who grow avocados cannot even afford their own products. These circumstances are unfortunate, considering the well-known health benefits of avocados. Therefore, seeking organic, fair-trade avocado oil is the best way to minimize the negative impact on society and the environment.
There's More than One Way to Skin a Coconut
There are many ways to get oil from a coconut, and each extraction method yields oil with different qualities. However, coconut farmers often use hot presses (expeller presses). The heat from the press degrades some nutrients in hot-pressed oil. In addition, heated centrifuges separate coconut oil from coconut milk.
Coconut oil producers often treat coconut meat with hexane or other chemicals. However, these methods can leave chemical residues if not done correctly. And since opening coconuts requires specialized tools, which increases labor costs, they have earned a reputation as environmentally friendly because they are harvested by hand. In addition, virgin (or unheated) coconut oil's purity has caused it to grow in popularity over the last decade.
Small Farmers Dominate the Coconut Landscape
Coconut oil can be a sustainable choice with a few caveats. First, coconut trees are not associated with deforestation on the scale of many other oil crops like palms. In fact, about 95% of oil-producing coconut trees are on small farms in the Philippines and Indonesia, cultivated by hand (i.e., without heavy machinery), and not part of a monoculture operation.
Nevertheless, there are still sustainability concerns with coconut oil. For instance, hexane, often used in the oil extraction process, is a pollutant with possible health side effects. Furthermore, centrifuges and chemical processes can be energy intensive for the amount of oil they produce. Finally, coconut farms in Southeast Asia have faced accusations of forced child (and monkey!) labor.
Sustainability Is More About Practices than Crops
In an ideal world, we would enjoy the health benefits of our food without having to worry about any social or environmental implications. Unfortunately, while this is yet more encouragement to source food locally where it's easier to determine how it's produced, mass importation is unlikely to cease. Therefore, the best bet for sustainability when choosing a cooking oil comes down more to farming and production practices than the type of oil.
Coconut, avocado, and olive oil each present environmental challenges, especially regarding scale. However, traditional production methods that eschew chemicals and avoid intensive practices can minimize the negative impacts. Indeed, we may find out in the future that these healthy oil crops should replace some more common ones like palm, soybean, and canola.
Go Organic – Olive, avocado, and coconut oils are not regulated to the same standards. Since it can be challenging to determine whether something is produced sustainably, we are at the mercy of 3rd party labels. Certified Organic is better than nothing!
Fairtrade When Possible – As with Certified Organic, Fairtrade certification should ensure that your oils are produced with a minimum level of humane treatment for laborers (and monkeys!). In addition, Fairtrade usually entails a minimum price to ensure a livable wage for producers that allows them to invest in their communities.
Stay Local – Easier said than done since it can be tough to find locally grown avocados, coconuts, and olives in many parts of the US. Nevertheless, localizing your food sources reduces transportation emissions and demand, lowering strain on the source nation.