Palm oil is a harmful product for people and the environment, but the problem also offers potential with innovative solutions to make an entire economy more sustainable
What do chocolate spread, biscuits, pastries, packet soups, lipstick and washing powder have in common? They all contain palm oil. Every second product in the supermarket contains one of the world's most important raw materials. Many consumers are not aware that by reaching for the supermarket shelf they are strongly influencing their health and, above all, the state of our environment. The production of palm oil produces carcinogenic pollutants. In addition, the growing number of oil palm plantations is continuously destroying the rainforest. So - Which products contain palm oil, is there sustainable palm oil and what can we do? You can find the answers here.
Why is palm oil unhealthy and what foods contain it anyway?
Even though palm oil is used in many products, it is not the highest quality vegetable fat, as it has a high proportion of saturated, i.e. unhealthy, fatty acids. The production of the vegetable fat also produces higher amounts of fat pollutants, such as XNUMX-MCPD fatty acid esters. These substances are suspected of causing cancer. Children in particular quickly ingest a quantity of these harmful substances that is well above the tolerable limit when they eat an unfavourable combination of palm oil-containing foods. In the long term, the intake of too much saturated fatty acids in palm oil can lead to vascular calcification and diabetes.
How can it be that manufacturers still use palm oil despite these negative influences? The raw material offers many advantageous properties from which producers would like to profit. Its high heat resistance makes it extremely attractive for the manufacture of various products. In addition to its low price, it is also particularly versatile and easy to process. This is why we find palm oil in so many different everyday products. Only 5% of the palm oil consumed worldwide is used for electricity or heat production. The remaining 95% is in food and items we use every day.
The following products often contain palm oil:
- butter or margarine
- spreads – sweet and hearty
- chocolate & pralines
- cookies, pastries and ice cream
- baby food & infant milk
- ready-to-serve meals & packet soups
Here's why the consumption of palm oil harms the environment
However, the consumption of palm oil not only harms our own health, but also our environment in the long term. In order to be able to meet the growing demand for palm oil as quickly as possible, cruel slash-and-burn operations are taking place more and more frequently in the rainforest areas of Indonesia, during which endangered animal species, such as the orang utans, are driven out of their habitat. In order to create better growing conditions for oil palms, the rainforest soil is also drained, releasing additional CO2. Regular forest fires caused by slash-and-burn operations destroy more hectares of rainforest and local communities. Thus the home of many indigenous communities.
The use of the herbicide paraquat, which is banned in the EU, is a health hazard for the many plantation workers. Even in small doses, it is harmful to humans. Protective suits are not available to the employees. Nausea, skin and respiratory diseases among the population are consequences of the weed killer that gets into the drinking water. Scientists are observing the spread of the parasite Plasmodium Knowlesi with concern, because it is now passing from monkeys to humans and infecting those affected with malaria. Here, too, a link to rainforest destruction is at the root of the problem.
Possible solutions: Palm oil producers and consumers need to rethink
Because palm oil is used in so many different products, the industry cannot do without it completely. Compared to other vegetable oils, it is very efficient in cultivation and can also be used in many different ways. Consumer centres and environmentalists have long been calling for stricter controls on the origin of processed palm oil. Manufacturers must be urged to use only sustainably produced palm oil from organic cultivation. The current RSPO certificate is a good approach, but not enough. According to WWF, however, a palm oil boycott is not the solution.
A state-recognised seal that is subject to intensive controls could provide more transparency for consumers and influence purchasing decisions accordingly. The indications "palm oil", "palm" or "palm fat" are indicators for the use of the raw material in food. Cosmetics and detergent manufacturers are not yet obliged to list palm oil in the ingredients. Innovative alternatives are also needed, which could be initiated by the big companies such as Mondelez, Ferrero, Nestlé, P&G or Unilever.
Ultimately, we can all contribute to defusing the problem with our own purchasing decisions by making a critical and more conscious decision to consume food and processed products.