The FDA's Trans Fat Ban Could Be Killing Orangutans Half a World Away

The unexpected way french fries in America will affect the rainforests in Malaysia.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The announcement by the Food and Drug Administration this week that it was banning the use of partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fats in the American diet, was immediately hailed as a major public health victory—and for good reason. The FDA estimates that the move could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.

“This is the final nail in the coffin of trans fats,” Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The New York Times. “In terms of lives saved, I think eliminating trans fats is the single most important change to our food supply.”

But what’s indisputably good for our hearts may not be so great for, say, orangutans in Borneo or tigers in Sumatra. Or, for that matter, our planet's ever-warming climate.

Even as food makers have been working for a number of years to eliminate trans fats, they still need to find an alternative for an oil that stays solid at room temperature for products where trans fats are hard to replace. What’s the No. 1 contender for the job? Palm oil.

You may have caught wind this week of news that the ecology minister of France, Ségolène Royal, called for a weeklong boycott of cult-like fave Nutella for its use of palm oil, which sent fans of the addictive spread into a kind of conniption. But really, why single out Nutella?

Just as you likely don’t have a tub of “trans fat” in your pantry, you probably don’t have any palm oil either. So just how much of the stuff you consume may come as a surprise. Palm oil is used in everything from fast-food french fries to pizza dough, ice cream and margarine to body soap and lipstick. The Rainforest Action Network estimates palm oil is now in half the products on supermarket shelves, and that’s been something of an environmental disaster for places like Malaysia and Indonesia, where tens of thousands of acres of rainforest have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

According to Bloomberg Business, the FDA’s move to eliminate trans fat could translate into an increase of a half-billion pounds of palm oil a year to the U.S., which already imports 2.6 billion pounds annually. That’s been an increase of more than 400 percent over the past decade.

So, Why Should You Care? Not only does rampant conversion of rainforest to palm oil plantation destroy habitat for scores of wild animals—one-third of all species in Malaysia are endangered, in large part because of the deforestation caused by irresponsible palm oil farming—but it mows down forests that act as enormous carbon sinks, storing million of tons of greenhouse gases. Worse yet, swampy peatlands are also often drained and cleared, and these store up to 22 times more carbon than the forests. Trading in the health problems caused by partially hydrogenated oils for the environmental problems caused by palm oil is still diminishing holistic global health.

The work of public advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists is more timely than ever. Last year, UCS released its first-ever rating of 30 of the largest restaurant chains and food companies, charting what commitment they’ve made to sourcing palm oil that is deforestation- and peat-free. This year, it followed up and expanded the list to 40 companies.

RELATED: Chinese Palm Oil Plantations Are Destroying the Home of Africa's Great Apes

In the packaged food sector, giants like Nestlé, Danone, and Kellogg’s stand out, and in the personal care sector, Colgate-Palmolive, P&G, and L’Oréal get kudos. The situation is fairly dismal in both the fast-food and the store-brand sectors, with only Dunkin’ brands in fast food and Safeway store brand demonstrating any laudable commitment to sourcing their palm oil responsibly.

Among the rogue’s list of companies that get a big fat zero from UCS are DQ, Domino’s, Wendy’s, and Yum! Brands (owner of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut), as well as store brands CVS, Walgreens, Target, and Costco.

But as UCS points out, many of the companies that score high on the list do so because they’ve made a stated commitment to responsibly sourcing palm oil. In practice, none of the companies—not one—sources 100-percent deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil.

“Real action is needed now, especially given that a number of companies have committed to eliminating the use of irresponsible sources of palm oil by the end of [2015],” write Lael Goodman and Asha Sharma, two UCS staffers working on the issue, in a recent report.

In a follow-up blog post this week, Goodman calls on the public to keep the pressure on these companies: “American consumers have been demanding that the palm oil in their favorite products is free from the destruction of tropical forests and carbon-rich peatlands. As companies continue to use palm oil to fill the gap left by the removal of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, an increase in demand for palm oil should in fact be an increase in demand for only deforestation-free palm oil.”