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Why Palm Oil Is Bad for You and the Environment

by Miriam Cihodariu

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You may have heard rumors that palm oil is bad for you, but these often come with contradictory ones that claim palm oil to be a healthier choice compared to other oils. Other positive rumors say palm oil can and should be used as part of a healthy keto diet. Which one is it, in the end? Is palm oil good or bad, and why? 

We’re all responsible for making good health choices and making sure they are also sustainable for the world. Since I am trying to reduce the amount of palm oil to a minimum in my personal life and I’ve really created a resolution for myself in this regard, I decided to compile this overview of all the ways palm oil is damaging. I think there is still a lot of confusion on the subject, and hopefully my blog post will help clarify things.

What Exactly Is Palm Oil?

palm oil in a bowl and bottle next to fruit

Image source: FinancialTribune.

Palm oil is fat extracted from the fleshy part of the palm fruit. There is also palm kernel oil to speak of, which is made, obviously, from the kernels of palm fruits, much like there is olive oil and olive pomace oil. There are also some palm oil blends on the market combining both oil from the fruit and the kernels.

Extracting palm oil and using it for human nutrition is actually a much older practice than you might think, going back some 5,000 years ago, all the way to being included in Egyptian tombs, for instance. This actually makes me feel bad for speaking against such a long historical and cultural tradition, but nowadays the palm oil extraction process is much changed from ancient times, and sadly it’s for the worse.

What’s the Debate on Palm Oil?

man walking over palm fruit pile for palm oil production

Man walking over palm fruit pile readied for palm oil processing. Source: Eco-business.com.

As in any world-scale industry, matters are often very complicated. While from a health standpoint, matters are pretty clear on palm oil (it’s not great, but it’s affordable, convenient and there are other fats which are worse), the other issues are not that easy to settle. I will go into more detail on all the environmental and economic concerns about palm oil below, after clearing up the health debate.

Still, what you should know is that regulations and policies for the palm oil industry are a political hot topic in diplomatic circles. While some NGOs and first-world countries are trying to impose bans on it because of the environmental concerns, the third-world countries who export massive amounts of palm oil see the anti-palm lobbying as a direct attack on their economies. Bribes and threats are flowing in every direction and all the possible choices seem to come with strings and unwanted consequences.

To me, this is all more reason for individual consumers (like myself) to simply choose for themselves whether they want to support the palm oil industry or not, through all the little purchases we make.

How Palm Oil Is Bad for You

palm kernels in the hands of local man

Image source: SOS – Sumatran Orangutan Society.

From a nutritional point of view, palm oil contains a high amount of saturated fats, which as we all know are in most cases the bad kind of fats. Unrefined palm oil does contain some beta-carotens (vitamin A derivative) and tocopherol (vitamin E), but the palm oil used in the food industry is refined and at least partially hydrogenated, which means any beneficial substances in it are destroyed anyway.

Some nutritionists point out that from all the so-called tropical oils (palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil), palm oil contains the least saturated fats so it’s the healthiest. First of all, deciding whether an oil is healthy or not is a matter more complicated than looking at the content of saturated fats in it. Coconut oil indeed has a higher saturated fat content, but it somehow mysteriously works towards reducing the bad fats in your body.

Second of all, even nutritionists who say palm oil is a relatively good diet choice only label it as such when comparing the oil to heavier trans fats like margarine, which are absolutely the worst. This still doesn’t make palm oil truly be a recommendable health choice and since it usually receives a good deal of hydrogenation before being used in other foods (to make it have a longer shelf life), it’s pretty harmful compared to non-hydrogenated oils (anything cold-pressed).

Because the palm oil that reaches supermarkets and factories where other processed foods are made is refined, it contains a high amount of palmitic acid. This component has been proven to help cancer cells multiply faster, making the disease more deadly.

The only advantage of this oil seems to be that it’s cheap, and while sadly this may be a strong pro for people with little financial choice, it shouldn’t be the main decision factor in creating a healthy diet.

How Palm Oil Is Bad for the Environment

baby orangutan palm oil

Image source: Care2.com.

This is where the matters concerning palm oil are definitely less rosy than the so-and-so status of palm oil in a health debate.

a) Palm Oil and Deforestation

palm oil plantations deforestation

The deforestation caused by palm oil plantations. Source: SayNoToPalmOil.

The rainforest concessions in areas where palm oil plantations operate are shrinking fast, in spite of interdiction and warnings coming in from the local governments, international community and NGOs. The rate of deforestation for the rainforest areas targeted by the palm oil industry is huge, and, most importantly, a lot of this deforestation takes place illegally, despite the lack of clearance from local authorities or even from the corporate partners of the plantations that buy the palm oil from them.

Besides deforestation, the palm oil industry also has a bad rep because of the considerable amounts of greenhouse gas emissions it produces. There have also been attempts of using palm oil as biofuel, in an effort to reduce the negative impact of petroleum products on the environment, but ecological NGOs such as Greenpeace are opposing the initiative. They argue that the deforestation caused by palm oil is more harmful than the benefits which derive from replacing fossil oil with biofuel. Still, more than half of all the palm oil imported by the European Union goes into biofuel, so the EU policy of diluting fossil oils with natural oil is indirectly sustaining the harm done by the palm oil industry.

b) Palm Oil Impact on Wildlife

animal species endangered by palm oil

Image source: Cynthia House Artist.

Mainly because of the deforestation it causes, but also because of some chemicals used in the processing stage of production, palm oil threatens a lot of animal and plant species with extinction. The rain forest habitat is the most affected by palm oil extraction, and since rain forests are one of the few remaining sources of great biodiversity, deforestation can take a huge body count toll here. x

Some of the most known species endangered by palm oil production are the orangutan, the Borneo elephant and the Sumatran tiger. There’s been a lot of media attention focusing on the sad story of these majestic animals and on the endangered Leuser ecosystem, and this is what probably made me decide in the end to stop consuming palm oil.

c) Palm Oil and Indigenous People

child laborer on palm oil plantation

Child laborer photographed by investigative reporters on palm oil plantation. Photo source: Rainforest Action Network.

Finally, there is also the matter of the social impact of the palm oil industry on the people who either work within it, or the local peoples who live close to exploitation areas. It’s hard to decide whether the industry is socially harmful or socially helpful, since examples can be invoked for each side of the argument.

There have been cases when the palm oil industry helped transform the social landscape for the better, by investing in infrastructure and better living conditions for the local people. But unfortunately, for the most part, the industry is still associated with exploiting illegal immigrants, using child labor, and conducting intimidation campaigns to drive local inhabitants away from their lands. Amnesty International said there is no such thing as making the palm oil better, and described it as ‘anything but sustainable’.

palm oil plantation with child workers indonesia

More child laborers on a palm oil plantation. Source: World Justice News.

When the opinion of local workers is requested by journalists or policy makers, some may reply very much in favor of the palm oil industry, because for better or for worse it is their livelihood and they don’t want to lose it. Still, that doesn’t mean that they are paid fairly, nor exploited in the work relationship. However, as mentioned above, there are groups of people and communities for which the palm oil industry has genuinely changed things for the better. This is what makes matters so difficult to decide in black or white terms.

Some measures have been attempted to make palm oil harvesting more sustainable, but none of the efforts seem to have a significant effect yet. Until such an effect can be attained, the fact remains that the palm oil industry takes a huge toll on the human, animal and plant resources around it.

Wrapping It Up and How to Make the Change (If You Want to)

together we can change the world

Personally, though I am concerned with healthy food choices and with not putting unnecessary strain on your body because of what you eat, I’m still pretty far from being strict about it. I make plenty of unhealthy food choices even if I know better, I go on the occasional junk food binge, I am wary of orthorexia (aka the obsession of eating ‘the right way’) and so on.

But what really tipped the scales for me as far as palm oil is concerned is the environmental, animal and human damage it causes. When an industrial food product is causing so much harm in the world, I feel like I can’t continue to support its production, even if I have little choice about it, beyond what I spend my money on.

Of course, there are also plenty of health perks to gain from excluding palm oil from your diet, since nutritionally speaking it is a sort of glorified margarine. If you want to embark on a palm oil detox too, the only hard part will be reading the labels on any new product / brand of food you consider eating.

I’ve managed to have a whole range of foods I tend to eat already covered after an initial research and label reading, and now it’s easier for me to just buy or order the things I already know are palm oil free. I can also tell if a croissant from a random bistro has palm oil in it simply by taking a bite, even if it has butter flavor added.

When eating out, this can become an issue, since menu items don’t usually have ingredient lists, and I don’t want to be that person who hassles the waiters asking about palm oil in their pastries. But I’ve found that higher range and fancier places tend to be more on the right side of this issue, since palm oil is a very cheap food.

I don’t eat out all that often, or at least not things which can have palm oil in them, so spending a bit more when I do go to a restaurant or bistro isn’t an issue.

As a take-away, going on an (almost) permanent palm oil detox wasn’t very hard for me, and I really think anyone can do it. The matter becomes complicated if you also look to other products which contain palm oil, because we’re surrounded by them: soap, shapoos, lipsticks and other make-up products, detergent, car fuel etc. With a bit of care, you can come up with a list of palm oil free products to stick to. Good luck!


Want to learn more about making better food choices for your health and for the world? A detox and clease retreat can be the perfect head start.

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