Is Eating Palm Oil Ruining the Planet?

The common ingredient is blamed for destroying wildlife habitat and contributing to climate change—but it has sustainability upsides too.

(Photos: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images; Adek Berry/Getty Images; Flickr)

Oct 14, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Although they’re both derived from fruit grown on palms, coconut oil and palm oil are not the same thing. The tropical oils come from different species in the palm family (Arecaceae) and are grown and used in different manners. Coconut oil, which I covered in detail in June 2012, is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts from the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), which is commercially grown throughout the tropical lowlands. Before I go any further, though, it helps to have a passing familiarity with the nomenclature. Botanically speaking, a coconut isn’t a true nut at all but a fibrous one-seeded drupe. And what’s a drupe when it’s at home?

“A drupe is a fruit with a hard stony covering enclosing the seed (like a peach or olive) and comes from the word drupa, meaning overripe olive,” explains the Library of Congress on its “Everyday Mysteries” Web page—an enthralling destination for anyone who likes to procrastinate and learn stuff at the same time. “The coconut we buy in the store does not resemble the coconut you find growing on a coconut palm. An untouched coconut has three layers. The outermost layer, which is typically smooth with a greenish color, is called the exocarp. The next layer is the fibrous husk, or mesocarp, which ultimately surrounds the hard woody layer called the endocarp. The endocarp surrounds the seed. Generally speaking, when you buy a coconut at the supermarket, the exocarp and the mesocarp are removed and what you see is the endocarp.” Cool.

“If you look at one end of the coconut, you’ll see three pores (also called eyes). The coconut seed germinates and a shoot emerges from one of the pores,” the page continues. “In addition to the ‘baby’ plant in the seed, there is the food to kick off its life called the endosperm. The endosperm is what makes up most of the seed and, in the coconut’s case, is the yummy white stuff we eat.” Yummy, indeed. Right now, I’d kill for a slice of coconut cake.

The drupes of the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) are much smaller and look like another fruit entirely. The palm oil that is ubiquitous in food products—and, let’s not forget, a flavorful staple of the cuisines of West Africa and Brazil—is derived from their fibrous mesocarp. Palm kernel oil, which is chemically and physically different, is derived from the seeds and used mostly in soaps and cosmetics; palm kernel expeller is used in livestock feed and as biofuel for generating electricity.

The African oil palm is grown commercially in a number of tropical countries, principally Malaysia and Indonesia, which together account for 85 percent of global palm oil production. Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, by 2020 its use is expected to double as the world’s population increases and as people—especially in countries such as China and India—become more affluent and consume more manufactured goods containing palm oil.

Many products that include palm oil aren’t clearly labeled (surprise, surprise). “Palm oil and its derivatives can appear under many names,” notes the World Wildlife Fund. Among them are vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitate, palmolein, glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, elaeis guineensis, palmitic acid, palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium kernelate, sodium palm kernelate, sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate, hydrated palm glycerides, ethyl palmitate, octyl palmitate, and palmityl alcohol.

More aliases than a gangster on the lam, and that’s not the half of it. “Clearing land for oil palm plantations has led to widespread deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia as well as other regions. This has pushed many species to the brink of extinction, such as rhinos, elephants, orangutans and tigers,” the WWF states. Clearing forests for palm oil plantation has also displaced native communities and contributes to climate change. “In recent years, almost a fifth of oil palm expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia has taken place on peat swamps.... Up to 66 percent of all climate change emissions from oil palm plantations comes from the 17 percent of plantations on carbon-rich peat soils,” the WWF continues.

As I type this, smoldering fires resulting from slash-and-burn techniques (the most cost-effective way of harvesting) in Sumatra and Borneo are cloaking Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia in smoky haze. “Around the region, flights have been grounded, schools have been closed, and tens of thousands of people have sought medical treatment for respiratory problems, allergies, eczema and other ailments,” reported Joe Cochrane in The New York Times. While these haze periods been been a problem for decades, “an especially long dry season this year, coupled with the effects of El Niño, threatens to make it the worst on record, scientists say.”

Nothing is ever simple, however. The WWF makes the point that the oil palm is capable of yielding more oil from less land than any other vegetable oil, with relatively modest inputs: “As a result, palm oil production has become an important source of income and a major part of the economy in the regions where it is grown, providing livelihoods for local communities and helping to lift its people out of poverty.”

And yes, sustainable palm oil exists. According to the WWF, around 18 percent of the world’s palm oil production was certified sustainable in 2014, up from 10 percent in 2011, and the organization is working to move palm oil markets away from unsustainable practices through its Market Transformation Initiative. The Switzerland-based Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is active in the development, implementation, and verification of global standards for sustainable palm oil, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has a Palm Oil Scorecard that evaluates many of the largest companies in packaged food, personal care, and fast food for their commitments to deforestation- and peat-free palm oil.

Palm oil’s sustainability issues may be making headlines today, but let’s not forget the controversial link between the saturated fats in tropical oils and health. Stay tuned for more on that subject next week.