Whether you’re familiar with it or not, palm oil is one of the world’s most popular vegetable oils. Although it’s fairly cheap, it comes at a much larger cost to the environment. The fact that palm oil has been linked to environmental destruction, animal endangerment and even human rights violations may be enough to convince you to start reading labels, and stop buying products that contain palm oil.
1. Palm Oil Is Not Healthy
After trans fats were no longer permitted in snack foods, many companies began to use palm oil and claim it as a “healthy alternative.” But palm oil is high in saturated fats, which have been a health concern of its own. In a study that followed people who ate a diet rich in palm oil for five weeks, researchers found an increase in their LDL cholesterol levels, similar to the effect of trans fats on the body.
Potato chips made with palm oil contain 75% more saturated fat than chips made with sunflower or canola oil. The Centers for Disease Control warns, “Diets high in saturated fat have been linked to chronic disease, specifically coronary heart disease.” The American Heart Association also links saturated fats to increased cholesterol levels, which can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
If the dangers of saturated fats aren’t enough to deter you, this fact might be: Palm kernel oil — palm oil harvested from the pit instead of the fruit — cannot be obtained organically, so the oil is extracted from the pit with a gasoline-like hydrocarbon solvent. (Sounds delicious, right?)
2. Palm Oil is Contributing to Deforestation
The palm oil industry plays a large role in climate change that’s human-induced. Palm oil plantations have been responsible for the clearing some of the world’s most dense forests. In 2009, nearly 30% of Indonesia’s reported carbon emissions were due to deforestation. According to the “Say No To Palm Oil” campaign, “Every hour, an area the size of 300 football fields is cleared in Indonesia and Malaysia to make way for palm plantations.”
3. The Palm Oil Industry is Corrupt
Of the 3.7 million people who work in the palm oil industry, thousands of them are child laborers who are forced to work. A report published in Business Week found that many workers are pulled into the industry as a result of owing debt, and some are even taken by human traffickers.
4. Palm Oil is Driving Orangutans to Extinction
The already fragile population of orangutans may be become extinct if their natural habitats continue to be destroyed. The orangutan population of Sumatra and Borneo has decreased by over 20,000 in the last 10 years, coinciding with a growing demand for palm oil in the United States between 1990 and 2010. Over 98% of the palm oil used in the U.S. comes from Southeast Asia.
5. Palm Oil is Driving Other Animals to Extinction
Plenty of other endangered species are at risk thanks to the palm oil industry. In 1978, an estimated 1,000 tigers roamed the island of Sumatra. Today, that number has dwindled to only about 400. Sumatran rhinos are also in danger, with population numbers less than 200. The expansion of the palm oil industry has led to the human disruption of rain forests that had previously been untouched. Growing human populations in these fragile areas has also caused elephants to be targeted at a higher percentage for ivory.
If you’ve made the decision to stay far away from products containing palm oil, here are six ways to avoid it:
1. Palm oil is most commonly disguised under “vegetable oil.”
2. Most snack foods that are pre-packaged and made by corporate giants such as Nestle and Unilever contain palm oil.
3. Ingredients containing the word “palm” are either palm oil or derived from the oil palm fruit.
4. If a product’s saturated fat content makes up more than 40% of its total fat content, it most likely contains palm oil.
5. If you’re unsure of whether or not a product contains palm oil, type the product name into a search engine along with the words “palm oil,” and scan the search results.
6. To completely avoid palm oil, choose products that only contain oils that are clearly labeled. This may include 100% sunflower oil, corn oil, olive oil, coconut oil or canola oil.