What is Palm Oil and Why is it So Bad? (Your Palm Oil Questions Answered)

Each community, nation and continent has its own native ingredients, culinary traditions and health practices. Palm oil is an ingredient that has been used in countless food products, supplements and beauty products for many years, but it has only come into the spotlight recently.

Palm oil seems to be an ingredient in every product these days, and there’s much debate as to whether it’s worth the trouble. Some health experts claim that palm oil can provide certain health benefits, while others are sure that it poses a risk to the heart. There’s also the complex environmental and humanitarian issue of how and where we cultivate palm oil, which adds another layer to the complicated matter that is palm oil. 

So, what is palm oil?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of the Elaeis Guineensis tree, which is indigenous to West and Southwest Africa. In this part of the world, people have used palm oil for over 5,000 years. 

In South America, you can find a similar oil palm called Elaeis Oleifera, but it is not grown commercially to the extent that African palm oil is grown. However, it is common for a hybrid of the two plants to be used in commercial palm oil production.

Palm oil production has recently expanded to Southeast Asia, in particular, Malaysia and Indonesia. Since this expansion, Malaysia and Indonesia have become the highest palm oil producers globally as their consistently warm and moist climate is ideal for growing palm trees. 

What is palm oil used for?

Palm oil is one of the cheapest and most popular oils worldwide, and people often use it in a culinary setting. Palm oil is a cooking staple in many West African kitchens, and people often use it for sautéeing or frying due to its high smoke point of 450°F (232°C). 

Palm oil is also used as a stabilizer in foods like peanut butter, baking margarine, and vegan meat and cheese alternatives. 

Why is palm oil bad? Why does palm oil have negative connotations?

Palm oil is a multifaceted substance, causing much debate between health experts, environmentalists, humanitarians and corporations. While palm oil is cheap, easy to cultivate and versatile in food production, it’s not great for the rainforest. Nearly all oil palm grows on land that was once home to diverse tropical forests. Palm oil production has been heavily criticized by environmentalists as it threatens biodiversity and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus far, deforestation has had devastating effects on global warming. Forests play a vital role in reducing the effects of greenhouse gasses by absorbing the atmosphere’s carbon. Without these trees, the pollution created by palm oil production and transport is felt even more sharply. 

Deforestation obliterates native landscapes, causing otherwise unnatural changes in the ecosystem and threatening the diverse wildlife that should be existing peacefully. One species that has been affected by deforestation is the Bornean orangutans, which are critically endangered due to habitat loss. 

Palm oil plantations have also been associated with human rights violations over the years. Plantation workers are not often paid enough to live, subjected to long, arduous workdays and unsafe working conditions. Local residents’ lives have also been affected as palm oil corporations have been known to clear farmland and forests without permission or notice. It’s not just the Bornean orangutan that has been displaced; it’s people too.

Which products contain palm oil?

You can find palm oil in products such as:

  • Peanut butter
  • Margarine 
  • Baked goods like biscuits, cakes and muffins
  • Chocolate
  • Food supplements (all our supplements are palm-oil free)
  • Soap
  • Shampoo
  • Some cosmetics
  • Cleaning detergents

Is palm oil bad for you?

Studies on palm oil’s effect on physical health have always clashed. 

Unrefined palm oil has a reddish-orange pigment that comes from antioxidants called carotenoids. These carotenoids include beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. Palm oil is also a good source of tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E containing strong antioxidants that may support brain function.

However, another cardiovascular health study found favourable and unfavourable results when people substituted palm oil for primary dietary fats. 

Palm oil can also increase blood clotting, and taking it with medications that slow clotting may reduce this medication’s effectiveness.

Another cholesterol study yielded conflicting results, but it was found that palm oil could increase the risk of certain heart disease. Repeatedly reheating palm oil can decrease its antioxidant capacity, contributing to heart disease.

In short, many studies have provided entirely varying results, depending on the location, age, sex and health of its subjects. Research seems inconclusive across the board, and most studies end their text with a disclaimer saying that more research is needed on this topic. 

It may be worth asking: is the risk worth it if we can substitute palm oil for less environmentally and potentially physically harmful alternatives?

Should I avoid palm oil?

Currently, palm oil is one of the most commonly used oils in the world. But the damage it does to the planet, its wildlife, and potentially our health means that many of us are looking for more ethical, sustainable and healthy alternatives. Avoiding palm oil in products is not always easy, but if you do so whenever possible, you can help persuade more companies to stop using an oil that does so much harm to the environment or avoid adding it to their products in the first place. Thankfully, we can get similar health benefits from similar foods, and with more and more companies ditching palm oil in their products, we can hope for a less palm oil-heavy future.