Palm Oil

Palm oil (PO) is the world's most widely produced and traded vegetable oil

palm oil

By far the largest argument against palm oil is its rampant spread, deforestation, economic hardship to forest people, and extinction of species

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palms, and it is seen by some as a versatile and eco-friendly way to power the world.  It's used in various industries, and it can be found in products ranging from biofuel, cosmetics to processed foods.

Palm oil is composed of fatty acids, esterified with glycerol just like any ordinary fat. It is high in saturated fatty acids. Palm oil gives its name to the 16-carbon saturated fatty acid palmitic acid. Monounsaturated oleic acid is also a constituent of palm oil. Unrefined palm oil is a large natural source of tocotrienol, part of the vitamin E family.

Many processed foods contain palm oil as an ingredient, but much of the palm oil that is consumed as food is to some degree oxidized rather than in the fresh state, and this oxidation appears to cause some health risks associated with consuming palm oil.

The other health risk is that many chemicals for oil palm weed and pest control are banned in the West as toxic and unsafe.  These chemical residues are another source of environmental poisoning which also affects human consumers who ingest or apply palm oils.

In the video below, the WWF paints a rosy picture of palm oil production helping the people without understating all the elements of PO production and Greenpeace only focuses on environmental concerns and doesn't look at the impact on human health.

Our Health

The link between dietary fats and cardiovascular diseases has prompted research into palm oil.  Fresh PO typically contains 50% saturated fatty acids, yet it does not promote atherosclerosis and arterial thrombosis.  The saturated fatty acid to unsaturated fatty acid ratio of palm oil is close to unity and it contains a high amount of the antioxidants, beta-carotene, and vitamin E. Although palm oil-based diets induce a higher blood cholesterol level than do corn, soybean, safflower seed, and sunflower oils, the consumption of palm oil causes the endogenous cholesterol level to drop.

This phenomenon seems to arise from the presence of the tocotrienols and the peculiar isomeric position of its fatty acids. The benefits of fresh unoxidised palm oil to health includes reduction in risk of arterial thrombosis and atherosclerosis, inhibition of endogenous cholesterol biosynthesis, platelet aggregation, and reduction in blood pressure.

Palm oil is been used in the fresh state and/or at various levels of oxidation. Oxidation is a result of poor storage and the processing of the oil for various culinary purposes. However, a considerable amount of the commonly used palm oil is in the oxidized state, which poses potential dangers to the biochemical and physiological functions of the body.

Unlike fresh palm oil, oxidized palm oil induces an adverse lipid profile, reproductive toxicity and toxicity of the kidney, lung, liver, and heart, and high palm oil levels in the diet induce toxicity to the liver.

The consumption of moderate amounts of unoxidised palm oil may be good for our health but the consumption of oxidised palm oil is know to be toxic.  Unoxidised Red palm oil, by virtue of its beta-carotene content, may protect against vitamin A deficiency and certain forms of cancer."

There are other downsides to the seemingly miraculous oil palm and critics say palm oil does as more harm than good as swathes of rainforest are clear felled, the timber is removed and the remaining vegetation burned off to make way for palm oil plantations destroying the habitat of indigenous and rare species.  The smoke pollution from these fires permanently darkens the dry season skies over South East Asia and is thought to cause many of the regions respiratory problems.

A study commissioned by the German government in 2008 found that the trees are actually responsible for accelerating climate change.

Green washing

Various ecological agencies (like the RSPO) exist to vouch that any product is produced in en environmentally friendly and sustainable way,  but palm oil producers have such a reputation for green washing, no palm oil product producer can be relief on to supply safe, environmentally friendly and chemical free palm oil and the stamp of any ecological agency is unreliable.

For every metric tonne of palm oil produced, 2.5 metric tonnes of effluent are generated from processing the palm oil in mills. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution affecting downstream biodiversity and people.

 The bottom line

Palm oil fills a gap in supplying needed oil for human consumption, but;

  • it's production is so unethical and environmentally damaging,
  • it's poor storage in tropical Asia means it begins to go rancid before consumption
  • the chemicals used in it's production are highly toxic

References Wikipedia
Business science
Palm oil crop failures linked to pesticides
Pub Med
Center for Science in the Public Interest - 48 page research document pdf
The Las Pavas Incident Villagers forced off their land for palm production DW TV.


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