Vegetable Oils: Two Sides of the Climate Crisis Spectrum

Where do cooking oils fall in the conversation of health

Oil and Trouble

Open up any kitchen cabinet, and you'll likely find at least one bottle of cooking oil. Oils have been used in the kitchen for generations. They're used in salad dressing, in baked goods, to fry food, and to grease the surfaces of cookware. Funnily enough, most don't come from actual vegetables. Instead, they tend to come from seeds, nuts, fruits, and grains. Canola oil, for example, comes from the seeds of the canola plant. While the labeled vegetable oil bottle you find on shelves is typically made from a variety of oils, including soybean and corn oil. Other plant oils include peanut oil, sunflower oil, palm oil, avocado oil, and olive oil. Of this list, olive oil has been incorporated into the human diet the longest, stemming from the Mediterranean region. Over the years, there has been a fixation on the health risks and benefits of all these oils. However, the discussion on their sustainability and effect on the planet has been a more recent topic. Despite its versatility, how much risk does vegetable oil pose to the environment and our health? 

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In the Beginning

Vegetable oils weren't always a common household item. Early in human history, people heated animal fats to obtain oil. In southern Europe, it is estimated that olive oil was produced some time around 4000 BC. In Asian countries like Japan and China, soy oil was created in 2000 BC. Over in North America, oil was derived from sunflower seeds and peanuts by beating them into a paste and boiling it afterwards. The oil would separate and rise to the surface of the water where it was collected. Aside from these early sources, the long list of cooking oils we have today came after advancements in technology that allowed for updated processes. It wasn't until the 20th century that vegetable oils were refined using machinery. In 1911 Proctor & Gamble came out with Crisco, short for crystalized cottonseed oil. It resembled lard, was marketed as a cleaner cooking fat, and became a huge success. Today, plant oils make up a 100 billion-dollar industry. Advancements in production have also allowed oil to be processed using chemicals. However, there is still a good amount that is made by pressing the plant or seed itself. The outcome of each method determines a different set of health benefits and risks.

Health Benefits and Risks

During the last century, vegetable oils rose in popularity while animals fats fell at the wayside. These days it's much more common to see an olive oil bottle in the kitchen pantry than it is to see lard or tallow. While oils from plants and seeds are often touted as a healthier alternative to animal fat, they still contain fats of their own. Among the many varieties, a hierarchy exists, ranking each based on their fat content. Regular vegetable oil, for example, has a lot of polyunsaturated fats in comparison to olive, canola, and coconut oil. Avocado and olive oil are often the choices people turn to when looking for a "healthier" oil option. This is because the oils are extracted by pressing the fruits rather than using a chemical process. When seed oils are chemically processed, they are put under high temperatures. Doing so oxidizes the unsaturated fatty acids in the seeds and creates harmful byproducts. Afterwards, in order to increase the oil output, the seeds are processed with a petroleum-based solvent. 

Additional chemicals are also used to neutralize the scent of the oil, and this process causes the production of trans-fatty acids. When we consume trans fats, our "bad" cholesterol increases, and our "good" cholesterol decreases. It also raises the chances of developing heart disease and blood vessel disease. Trans fats are much different from the unsaturated and saturated fats found in whole foods. The omega-3 fatty acids in oils are unsaturated fats and can help with our immune health. Omege-6 fatty acids are also unsaturated fats that regulate our genes, immunity, and blood clotting. Our bodies need omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids since we can't produce them ourselves. Even so, the current "western" diet often consumes too much of these fatty acids. It's crucial to limit consumption and keep an eye out for oils with high fatty acid content, like corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil.

The omega-3 fatty acids in oils are unsaturated fats and can help with our immune health. Omege-6 fatty acids are also unsaturated fats that regulate our genes, immunity, and blood clotting.

Along with paying attention to the type of oil we purchase, we should also be aware of how they're produced. Opting for oils that are organic will be the best bet for those who prioritize the healthiest option. When not organic, oils like canola, soy, and corn are genetically modified.

Nonorganic oils also get sprayed down with pesticides and fertilizers, whose chemicals often lead to contaminated runoff in water. As is the case for any crop that isn't organic, pesticides used during cultivation damage the nearby ecosystems. Meanwhile, fertilization used on crops can cause eutrophication in nearby water. This is an over-enrichment of nutrients and minerals. Too many nutrients doesn't sound like something harmful, but this occurrence actually causes the water quality to deteriorate. Too much eutrophication can cause dead zones in water where oxygen is completely gone due to algal blooms. Choosing organic means you're choosing a product that doesn't contribute to these environmental issues.

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The Palm Oil Plague

When it comes to edible oils and the environment, the discussion tends to be dominated by the issues within the palm oil industry. This is namely due to the deforestation that has swept through Southeast Asia in pursuit of cheap and profitable oil. While you may not purchase bottles of it for your home, palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. Part of its popularity began once the public started viewing trans fat in a negative light since palm oil has zero trans fats. It's also one of the cheapest oils and is found in countless consumer goods. Tyson, KraftHeinz, Walgreens, and Pepsico are just some of the large corporations that rely on palm oil for their products. It's used in processed foods like Kraft Macaroni and Doritos. It can even be found in detergents. Eighty-five percent of palm oil production takes place in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The rainforest has lost 80% of its space to these plantations and large mammals, like elephants and orangutans, have been driven out.

The 2016 documentary Before the Flood discusses the issue of palm oil at length, noting its impact on the land, the animals, and the local people. Hosted by Leonardo Dicaprio, the documentary shows image of the rainforests in Indonesia. Sumatra, Indonesia, has one of the three remaining tropical rainforests left in the world. It's here that the Southeast Asian Rainforest endures constant fires that are set to burn forest trees to make room for palm oil plantations. Unsurprisingly, the destruction of these native trees causes the environment to lose its biodiversity. What was once a land of lush and dense foliage is now a industrial farm often blanketed in smoke. The rainforest has lost 80% of its space to these plantations and large mammals, like elephants and orangutans, have been driven out. Interestingly enough, palm oil's impact on the globe is still less than the effects left by the cattle industry.

Is There a Solution?

Reversing the harm that palm oil has left in Southeast Asia isn't a simple fix. Using another oil in its place could require ten times the amount of land. Nearly twenty years ago, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was founded by environmental groups and corporations. In collaboration with oil palm producers, consumer goods manufacturers, banks, non-governmental organizations, and retailers, the RSPO sets the global standard for sustainable palm oil. The organization certifies about 19% of palm oil produced globally, and in 2011 the organization created a certification label to place on approved palm oil products. The certification's purpose is to reduce palm oil's negative effect on the planet and local communities. Certified palm oil must be made under fair working conditions, local people and their land must be protected, clearing of the forest is forbidden, wildlife must be protected, and new operations must reduce pollution and greenhouse gases. Each plantation is inspected to ensure standards are met.

Many corporations often opt to use products that are certified by third-party organizations to responsibly source and sell their goods. It is one way to help keep their supply chains "clean." However, buying certified goods only works when that certification upholds all its sustainability requirements. An article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered that certification did not actually reduce the occurrence of fires. Its abstract reads that "the effect of certification on deforestation in oil palm plantations remains unclear." Meanwhile, A study published in 2018 found that 40% of regions that produced certified palm oil still endured damages to their habitats, fires, and deforestation between the years 2001 and 2016. Where palm oil is concerned, there are still improvements to be made and adjustments to enact in order to establish a truly sustainable system.

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Ties to Extinction

Coconut oil is another versatile oil that comes from a palm plant. It's not often associated with the kind of bad press that palm oil receives, but its industry may not be as harm-free as the general public believes. A journal published in 2020 studies coconut oil's effect on wildlife and suggests that its production may hurt more animal species than all other kinds of plant oils. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, coconut oil production threatens an estimated 66 animal species. The Solomon Islands' Ontong Java flying fox is one species found on the IUCN's list of endangered animals. Before the development of coconut plantations, the species was often on the lands where the plantations sit today. Coconut farms currently take up 30.4 million acres of land around the world. This is about two-thirds the size of palm oil plantations.

A journal published in 2020 studies coconut oil's effect on wildlife and suggests that its production may hurt more animal species than all other kinds of plant oils.
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Olive Oil Suffers during Water Crisis

In Europe, the olive oil plantations in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy may have a problem of their own. Western Europe is in the midst of experiencing a record-breaking drought, leaving farmers concerned for their livelihood. According to the Global Drought Observatory, the continent is experiencing its worst drought in roughly 500 years. While olive trees are naturally drought resistant, the status of current conditions make it impossible to cultivate olive trees by relying solely on rainfall. Farmers in this region have to depend on irrigation systems instead. Even so, it is barely enough. In Spain, the availability of olives has fallen while the price has peaked. In fact, throughout the European Union, the price of olive oil has risen by 14%. Spain itself contributes about half of the global supply of olive oil. Some have turned to growing sunflower seeds instead since its usual producer, Ukraine, remains in the throws of war. However, the sunflowers are no match for the extreme drought. Both rivers and reservoirs are drying up, leading the government to look towards desalination plants. One plant in particular that yields about 90,000 cubic metres of clean water per day will be yielding 130,000 cubic meters within the next four years to meet needs. Extracting salt from ocean water is more of a quick fix than a sustainable solution. Lack of water isn't a one-country issue either. The water crisis is global and is exacerbated by extreme heat. Parts of France have undergone water rationing imposed by local governments, not unlike what residents of California have been prompted to do. Considering the consequences of the palm oil industry and the problems facing the olive industry, it would appear that the challenges with vegetable oil production is circular. The demand for palm oil causes environmental disruption, which indirectly contributes to the current shortage of olive oil.

The Verdict

The vegetable oil industry is riddled with big obstacles, and the climate crisis is at the heart of it all. Cooking oil production can be both the victim and perpetrator of the climate crisis. When global industries are involved, it becomes tough to find any that aren't contributing to the deterioration of the earth in some way. No one kind of plant oil meets every requirement to be completely green and sustainable. Systems have been in place so long that there are now jobs and markets that rely on that production, despite the wildlife and smaller communities that get the short end of the stick. Moving towards a sustainable infrastructure requires many hands in order to keep both the environment safe while avoiding major disruption to people's livelihoods. As a consumer, one must be aware of what small actions to take in order to not contribute to these massive problems. As a business, companies must do their part in only working with supply chains that are certified by reputable organizations.

Business Takeaways
  • To appeal to the conscious consumer, businesses should avoid creating products with palm oils and nonorganic oils.
  • Extreme droughts and heat are causing olive oil shortages and high product prices.
  • Palm oil certification isn't always a guarantee for a damage-free, clean product.