Palm oil is one of the most used oils in the world. Here’s what you need to know about the market giant.
Palm oil is the most widely-used vegetable oil on the market. It’s harvested from the fruits of the palm oil (or African palm) tree. These trees only grow in tropical environments, and begin to produce fruits three years after they are planted. At maturity, oil palm trees will stand at 40 feet tall.
Harvested fruits from the oil palm trees are crushed to extract the palm oil. The inner seeds, or pits, of the fruits are also processed to extract additional oil. Palm oil is odorless, and does not mask the scent of other ingredients. The oil is lightweight yet semi-solid at room temperature.
The demand for palm oil is high due to its variety of uses. In Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and other Asian countries, palm oil is used predominantly to cook street foods and fried dishes. Palm oil is preferred over other vegetable oils, like canola oil, due its stability under high temperatures.
Palm oil is widely used by food and non-food manufacturers because of its functional benefits and availability. Since palm oil is a stable ingredient, it prolongs the shelf life of foods, cosmetics, and hygiene products.
In Western countries, palm oil can be found in over 50% of all packaged goods in the average supermarket. Outside of food, it is widely listed as an ingredient in soaps, makeup, hair care products, toothpaste, deodorant, and more. Companies in Western countries prefer palm oil, as it is a cheaper alternative to other oils, with equal or better payoff when used in products.
Palm oil offers some potential health benefits. Doctors caution to disclose palm oil, or any vegetable oil, as unhealthy, especially if used in moderation. Oils fall under the fat macronutrient, and fats are an important part of a balanced diet to support a healthy lifestyle.
The nutritional value of one tablespoon of palm oil is as follows: 120 calories, 0g protein, 14g fat, 0g carbohydrates, 0g fiber, 0g sugar. It may seem as though palm oil provides little nutritional value, however, it hides some benefits.
Palm oil is high in antioxidants, which help the body to heal from and prevent further oxidative stress of the cells and body. High in vitamin E, palm oil supports healthy skin, the immune system, cell communication, and may have anti-aging properties.
The benefits of palm oil continue to be researched, as it is suspected it can lower risks for heart disease and dementia. However, consuming too much of any oils or fats can have the opposite effect.
Criticisms of palm oil largely derive from the environmental impact of its production and manufacturing. While oil palm trees grow in 42 countries across the globe, 85% of palm oil produced for the world market is grown in two places: Indonesia and Malaysia.
These two Asian countries have high biodiversity, high populations, developing economies, and low environmental protections in place. Biodiversity is the collection of plant and animal species within an area or country. Both Indonesia and Malaysia are home to rare plants and animal species; some found nowhere else on the planet.
In total, 3.7 million hectares of land have been cleared in Indonesia and Malaysia to create agricultural land for palm oil production. This equates to over 9 million acres. Deforestation is a driving cause of climate change and pollution. The deforestation taking place in Indonesia and Malaysia places sensitive species at risk of extinction, with many already being placed on the endangered species list. Some endangered species of Indonesia and Malaysia include the sumatran tiger, sumatran rhino, sumatran orangutan, and Asian elephant.
Palm oil production has also been faced with air and water quality concerns. In order to clear areas for oil palm trees, forests are cleared and burned. The burning releases carbon dioxide and particulate matter, which can impact air quality for weeks or months. Burning also drives animals away from their habitat, making them more likely to come into contact with humans and urban environments.
For human health, the air quality has been known to drop so low in areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, that exposure to outdoor air is not suggested. Such air quality can trigger asthma and respiratory irritation. A 2019 burning in Indonesia of over 300,000 hectares caused the air quality to become twenty times higher than the threshold for suggested exposure.
While the majority of palm oil production is not currently accepted as sustainable, there are palm oil manufacturers who are taking leaps to change the industry. Palm oil is one of the most productive oil products in the world, meaning it takes less land area to produce the same yields when compared to other oils, like olive or coconut oil.
For each hectare of land used to produce palm oil, 3.8 tons of oil can be captured each year. About 73 million tons of palm oil is produced annually. To obtain the same amount of alternative oils, like olive or coconut oil, four to ten times more land would be necessary to produce the same productivity.
Current palm oil production has its issues. However, there are ways to make the industry more sustainable, and some organizations are already doing so. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) works with partners from all sectors of the palm oil supply chain: from planting to distribution. The organization certifies businesses and brands who commit to sourcing palm oil that fall under their sustainability standards.
Currently, over 18% of global palm oil on the market has been certified sustainable under the RSPO.
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