Palm Oil 101 |Everything We Need To Know

on December 14, 2019 / by

Palm Oil, one of the most magical ingredients available to mankind today, is present in almost 90% of products we consume. However, just as fame comes at a price, Palm Oil’s popularity comes with a huge debate with an equal number of people for and against it for varied reasons. Unfortunately, those who vote against it, have only seen one side of the PALM without attempting to see the picture in totality. I have consistently followed the highs and lows of Palm Oil, including it’s rising demand over the years, questions surrounding its impact on health, and the hue and cry around its sustainability. With this article, I wish to debunk some myths surrounding Palm Oil, so consumers can fearlessly make an informed choice whether for or against it. 

So to the layman first up is the oblivious query, What is Palm Oil?
The answer to this is pretty simple, Palm Oil just like any other oil is made from the fruit of the tree, in this case, the Oil Palm which originally grew in Africa, then was harvested in countries with tropical weather like Indonesia and Malaysia.

So the pressing next question followed is, How is it used? 
Palm Oil contains antioxidants and beta-carotenes, and has a mid-range smoke point with a nutty taste that makes it perfect for cooking, especially baking, sautéing and medium heat frying. Palm Oil also contains high saturated fat along with high lauric acid making it an ideal ingredient for personal care products such as soaps, lotions, cosmetics and household cleaning products. It is also used as biodiesel. 

Since it is present in almost all aspects of life there is a raging debate on its effect on wellness. Let’s not forget that today Palm Oil is an indispensable part of our lives, with the WWF estimating it as an important ingredient in 90% of all supermarket products used. This huge magnitude opens up a continuous debate about the effects of Palm Oil on overall health and wellness. Thankfully there have been numerous studies conducted by respectable international bodies that reaffirm a positive effect on the health, thereby ascertaining the nutritional benefits as well. 

Research shows that each tablespoon of Palm Oil contains 119 calories, 13.5-gram fat and 2.2-milligram Vitamin C, which help reduce the LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, raise good HDL cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart attack and improve the immune system. Additionally, the antioxidants contained in Palm Oil offer many benefits to skin and hair health, including protecting cells from UV radiation and toxins.

So you must be asking yourself, if Palm Oil is so healthy and versatile, what’s all the debate surrounding it? 
Well, honestly I find it rather amusing, for it seems like a smear campaign to discredit Palm Oil. Among the numerous non-validated arguments, one of the major accusations that detractors talk about is how the Oil Palm crop is not sustainably grown and wreaks havoc on the environment, animals and communities. This argument is usually followed by a constant call to substitute Palm Oil with other alternatives including rapeseed oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, coconut oil, etc. 

However, the individuals who push for this change are unaware of the fact that the Oil Palm crop uses less land, fewer pesticides and fertilizers to produce than its counterpart. Now to put this in numbers, as per the research conducted by The Oil Palm, to produce 150 million tonnes of oil; 38 million hectares of oil palm will be required. However, to produce the same 150 million tonnes of oil, the need will be of 187 million hectares of rapeseed or 250 million hectares of sunflower or 375 million hectares of soybean, which clearly is more than thrice the land and so hence water, pesticides, fertiliser all resources will be greater than that for Oil Palm. So now the crucial question must be asked, Which crop would be able to match the climate and environmental sustainability of Oil Palm? As outlined above all alternative oilseed crops have a much larger negative impact on the environment and imbalance the metrics to a far greater extent. 

But as the world population grows, the need for food, requirement for products, etc is rapidly growing. And to ensure that the need for food and other livelihood products is met, the best option currently is Palm Oil. Having said that, it’s no surprise that to cater to the rapid demand, the industry has pushed its boundaries to supply it. Unfortunately, an influx of Oil Palm plantations have sprung up all around the world, of which some are ethically planned while many are unethically seeded which creates doubt about sustainable and impact. To correct the wrong, many checks and balances have been put in place by the industry body, which enables the industry to head in the right direction.

However, the buck doesn't stop with the industry, but it does extend to us. As consumers who are aware of our individual responsibilities, we need to ask the tough questions, voice our opinions, pressurise for use of ethical ingredients, and join movements like Palm Done Right to be a part of this revolution and support those who are leading the change for a better tomorrow.

Until next time,
~ Heena

This article is written in partnership with the Malaysian Palm Oil Council to create awareness about Palm Oil, its history and way forward. The views expressed are independent and unbiased observations made by the blogger and the council bears no responsibility for the same.

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