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Good For You, Bad For The Planet! The Business of Exploiting Palm Oil

Posted By Julie Morris On June 24, 2008 @ 10:03 am In Fitness/Diet,Green Report / Media | 4 Comments

Photos by raysto

You don’t have to be a hardcore green foodie to know the culinary power of a good oil. But in terms of nutritional reputation, some oils have had it worse than others. Cue the tropical oils: palm and coconut. There’s no denying they taste great, but man, those guys have had it tough. In the 1980’s, critics claimed the high level of saturated fat found in tropical oils was harmful: a message largely campaigned by the wonderful folks that brought you trans-fats.

Of course now that it’s trans-fats that are on the chopping block, new studies are looking back to the tropical oils, only this time as a healthy dietary addition. It seems the plant-based, cholesterol-free tropical oils not only pose no health threats, but actually contain many health-giving properties. Palm oil is considered one of the best oils for high heat cooking applications, as its fatty acid chains remain safely stable under the higher temperatures. It is also extremely high in bioavailable antioxidants, and is known, in fact, to be one of the richest sources of cartinoids — more than 30 times what is contained in carrots. Take into account the high amounts of vitamin E, as well as the ability to help with cardiovascular disease, and it’s easy to see why palm oil is a respected oil in the nutritional world.

But just as these oils have finally been accepted back into the kitchens of nutritionists and consumers alike, new reports are emerging painting tropical oils – palm oil in particular — with a fresh coat of negativity. It appears that though palm oil may be a dream in the kitchen, it may just be an eco-nightmare.

A recent story on NPR gives palm oil quite a one-two punch. “The fastest and the worst deforestation rate in the history of humankind is taking place in the tropical forests of Indonesia,” says Rolf Skar, a senior forest campaigner with Green Peace. “That record-breaking rain forest destruction is being fueled by the clearing of land to make palm oil.”

Photos by Yodod

Indonesia is apparently the third in line of deforesting countries (right behind the US and China). The article also claims that in addition to as much as 80% of this deforestation being illegal, the process is notorious for violating human rights; threatens the population of severely endangered orangutans and Sumatran white tigers; and is a huge source of greenhouse gasses through the process of clearing and burning of forests to make more palm oil.

Of course, not all palm oil is sourced for food. The oil has a long history of being used in everything from cosmetics to glue, with an increased use of biofuel resulting in a elevated demand as well. Yet with claims like “the worst deforestation rate in the history of human kind,” you can’t help but rethink your stir-fry.

But amongst the large amount of evidence condeming palm oil, there is some good news to be had. While a large amount of palm oil may come from Indonesia, not all of it does; Malaysia is actually the largest producer of tropical oils. Unlike it’s geographical neighbor, according to The Palm Oil Truth Foundation, “Malaysia has one of the most stringent environmental laws in the world . . . vigorously enforced especially in the agricultural sectors of the economy.” The foundation also cites “Malaysia [had] an Environment Quality Act as early as 1974 to put in place environmentally sound technology to control effluent discharge by the palm oil industry.” Beyond Malaysia, there are many other sources of palm oil, which boast more sustainable farming practices too, including other parts of Asia and Africa.

This new tropical oil debate is a good reminder that there is more to food than simply the effect that it has on our bodies; we must also consider the effect that it has on the body of the earth. Palm oil remains a great asset to the kitchen cupboard, as long as we read labels and choose our sources wisely.

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