After All That Rainforest Destruction, Palm Oil Is Not Even Healthy for You

Palm oil has popped up on a lot of ingredients lists in the last several years. It’s been widely used by food manufacturers as a replacement for trans fat, after the trans fat labeling requirement went into effect in 2006. But the fast-rising demand for palm oil, a common ingredient also of soaps and personal care products and a growing source of biofuel in Europe, has had devastating consequences for the environment. And though it may not be as bad for you as trans fat, it isn’t exactly a health food.

A new study, led by researchers at Stanford and Yale universities and published in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that the development of oil palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo, a.k.a. Kalimantan, is driving “massive carbon dioxide emissions.” A leading producer of palm and palm kernel oil, Indonesia “is also one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, due to rapid loss of carbon-rich forests and peatlands.” According to the United Nations, 98 percent of Indonesia’s forests may be destroyed by 2022.

In 2010 alone, the study estimates, land-clearing for oil palm plantations in Kalimantan released more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equal to annual emissions from 28 million vehicles. By 2020, plantation expansion will account for 558 million metric tons, or more than all of Canada’s fossil fuel emissions. Researchers combined field measurements with analyses of high-resolution satellite images and government lease records to come up with these estimates.

The Indonesian government has pledged to curb deforestation as well as emissions, but some are skeptical about whether it can make good on that pledge. As reported in Scientific American, “much of Indonesia’s proposed policy centers on a plan to site new plantations on already degraded land, thus sparing the need for further forest clearing. But without clear parameters, that designation can easily be skewed,” said study leader Lisa Curran of Stanford University. The government, moreover, has not been able to crack down on rampant illegal foresting.

From China to the European Union to the U.S., the market for palm oil is exploding, and a May 2009 article in the U.K.’s Independent explains why:

In its own way, palm oil is a wonder plant. Astonishingly productive, its annual yield is 3.6 tonnes a hectare compared with half a tonne for soy or rapeseed. Originally found in West Africa, palm oil is uniquely “fractionable” when cooked, meaning its properties can be easily separated for different products. Although high in artery-clogging saturated fat, it is healthier than hydrogenated fats. For manufacturers, there is another significant benefit… it is cheaper than soy, rapeseed or sunflower.

Another advantage of palm oil for food production is that it “is highly versatile and can be substituted for hard animal fats (butter and lard); for soy, olive, or canola liquid vegetable oils; and for partially hydrogenated oil,” as explained in a 2005 report called “Cruel Oil” from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

It’s high-yielding, cheap and versatile. It’s no wonder palm oil is in huge global demand by food manufacturers, who have taken to billing it as a health food of sorts by, for example, touting the fact that it’s derived from the “fruit” of the oil palm. Studies have shown, however, that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, promotes heart disease, just like butter, lard and trans fat.

That rainforests are being leveled to make margarine, crackers, cookies and chocolates is a tragic irony, to say the least. The Independent called it an example of “environmental lunacy” in that “it isn’t just destroying one of the last great wildernesses, its rare animals and some of the remaining people whose ways are at odds with modern living. It also threatens to damage our own lives in the West.”

For the sake of the environment, rainforest wildlife, including Orangutans and Sumatran tigers and your own health, read labels carefully and avoid products containing palm or palm kernel oil. Or, look at least for palm oil that’s sustainably produced. According to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil accounts for less than 10 percent of the global market.


Related Stories:

Species Gravely Endangered by Global Trade of Commodities like Palm Oil

Top 3 Victims of Palm Oil: Wildlife, People and Planet

Cargill Admits Buying Palm Oil from Illegally Cleared Orangutan Habitat


Photo Credit: DrLianPinKoh


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Nathan W.
Nathan W5 years ago

Given the title of the article, you would think it would cover the health aspects of palm oil. This is all I could find:

" Studies have shown, however, that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, promotes heart disease, just like butter, lard and trans fat.

No footnotes. No studies sited. That's because there is no study that shows saturated fat is bad for you. Palm oil is very good for us, like other oils cold pressed from soft plant tissue (olive). Buy orangutan/environmentally friendly palm oil and don't worry about it.

Wong Jowo
Wong Jowo5 years ago

Palm Oil is far healthier than trans fat, animal fat, coconut oil, etc.
Palm Oil is considered as balanced oil because of its roughly equal amount of saturated & un-saturated fats per grams. Only olive oil is healthier than Palm Oil becuase of its higher amount of un-saturated fats per grams.

Palm Oil is the world's most efficient crop, producing 10x times more yields per hectare than its closest contender; soy, canola, rapeseed, etc. Not supporting Palm Oil also means, the same land will be used for other crops that are less productive and even more damaging to the environment. Realistically speaking, there's no better alternative crops than Palm Oil.

Whats more damning is that, blind negative smear campaign against Palm Oil smacks of hypocrisy when actually the primordial forest in the EU & US have long been decimated (a complete total deforestation) hundreds years ago in the name of progress (farming, industry, etc). Even today, EU & US still are many times more deforested and unable to match the level of Indonesia & Malaysia.

Satistically speaking, any green campaign for the environment should prioritise in punishing the main culprits; EU & US as the world's biggest and longest cumulative polluter since the Britain's industrial revolution in the 1800s.

The World Bank and RSPO as a multi-stakeholder organisation are still the best venue to advance causes for the poor farmers and the environment, until something better comes along.

Dave C.
David C5 years ago

noted. thanks.

Kathy G.
Kathy G5 years ago

Diversity of the environment is key

Jane Mckenzie
Jane Mckenzie6 years ago

hard to always know when labelling inadequate

Kate H.
Kate H6 years ago

(whoops, posted before I was done) There are a few tasty things out there that are free from palm oil though, I think Reese's peanut butter cups are one. So long as they're not calling it something else on the package, anyway.

Kate H.
Kate H6 years ago

It's damn near impossible to avoid palm oil when you buy groceries, you really have to check stuff hardcore. If you know a food to be very creamy or soft, there's a good chance there is palm oil in it; margarine and junk food (especially candy, cookies, and pastries) seem to be loaded with it.

Sarah M.
Sarah M6 years ago


Patty B.
Patty B6 years ago

ALWAYS read ingredient labels .If the product contains palm oil it is your choice . Just remember that animals die when rain forests are destroyed .