Why palm oil is not as bad as its reputation

Palm oil is an important cause of deforestation but it’s almost impossible to avoid and replacing it with other oils is also not a solution. Is there a sustainable option?


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When I was a child my favorite thing was to sneak to the pantry, grab a Nutella jar, and enjoy a spoonful of one of the most delicious spreads in the world. But then my teacher ruined it all with a disturbing video about palm oil. I don’t remember much, except that there were some sad orangutans, fire, and of course Nutella. It turns out that my favorite spread contains palm oil and was responsible for the tragedy. I was heartbroken.

Some like it sweet, some like savoury. Frank’s childhood favourite isn’t Nutella but grilled sausages, especially when he’s out camping. On page 136 in the Fork Ranger book you’ll read how this has a place in his new sustainable diet.

Media campaigns – mostly by Greenpeace – started soaring around the world, as a response to the massive unsustainable growth of the palm oil industry. Pick a random product in the supermarket and there is a 50 percent chance that it contains palm oil. It is found in products from noodles to ice cream and even toothpaste (want to test it? Use the Soosee food scanner to check for palm oil).

That makes me question, if palm oil is so bad why are we still using it so much?

Why we got addicted to palm oil

The truth is palm oil is special. Before its massive boom, processed products contained trans fats. Trans fats were the first man-made fats, created to keep products fresh and make them tastier.

Have you ever enjoyed ice cream because it is so soft and creamy that it melts in your mouth? That is because of the fat content. In fact, for ice cream to be considered premium, high content of fat is required. Because palm oil fats are healthier than trans fat they became the producer’s top choice.

For food producers, palm oil worked like magic. A vegetable oil with high yields, versatile, that could handle frying without spoiling. Palm oil is smooth and creamy, and it has no smell, which makes it an ideal ingredient for enhancing flavor, texture, and shelf life. Not only that but palm oil is cheap, palm trees produce all year round and they can grow where many other plants can’t. In short: a super oil 💪

While palm oil is a key ingredient in processed food, it is also used in other industries. In fact, 25 percent of global palm oil production is used as a cooking and deep-frying oil. Mostly in Southeast Asia, Africa, and parts of Brazil.

This infographic is about the global use of palm oil. In Europe, the picture changes: more than half of all consumed palm oil is biofuel. So in Europe, cars are using up more palm oil than food!

How did we turn this super oil into the villain?

The main problem with palm oil is where and how it’s grown: in huge monocultures in the rainforest.

Where it’s grown: rainforest areas

85% of all palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, where tropical rainforests are cut, or worse, burned to make space for palm oil plantations. As we know, burning rainforests = bad. This is not a good time to burn down the “lungs of the Earth”.

How it’s grown: monocultures

The problem is that rainforests are cut down or burned and that they are replaced with monocultures. Like other agricultural products, palm oil is grown in vast fields with plenty of pesticides and fertilizers.

All of this is a problem because it’s the opposite of what a rainforest is supposed to be: the most diverse ecosystem on the planet. Despite only covering 6% of the planet’s surface, rainforests are home to half of the world’s plant and animal species.

Replacing rainforests with palm oil plantations means animals like Sumantran tigers, rhinos, and orangutans no longer have a home. The orangutans! 😢

Of course, this is sad, but why is this dangerous for us? In simple terms, biodiversity is what makes the planet habitable. For example, a decrease in pollinating insects can result in catastrophic effects on the food chain. No pollination leads to no crops, and no crops means no food for humans. If you want to better understand the importance of biodiversity you can watch this video of Ted-Ed by Kim Preshoff.

What are sustainable solutions for palm oil?

The first thing that comes to mind is using other vegetable oils. And while these have different characteristics they can also create tasty chocolate spreads. However, if we would do this for all palm oil products in the world, we would need to convert even more land into oil plantations.

If you replaced all of the world’s palm oil with sunflower or rapeseed oil, it would require FOUR times more land. And FIFTEEN times more land if you replace palm oil with coconut and groundnut oil.

A more radical approach would be to simply avoid processed foods. By choosing fresh vegetables and unprocessed foods as a starting point of what we eat we avoid eating the need for these kinds of oils altogether.

Besides what we as consumers can do, large food producers are working towards a solution. Together with other parties, they set up the RSPO certification whose criteria can help to minimize the negative impact of palm oil on the environment and local communities. However, this certification also receives substantial criticism. So the real impact is disputable.

How does palm oil compare to beef?

Palm oil and beef are the two most important drivers of deforestation. At Fork Ranger we like to put things into context to help you understand how much you should care about avoiding certain products. So it’s time for Nutella vs. Beef.

While Nutella is known as a chocolate-hazelnut spread, it consists of mostly sugar and one-third palm oil. We looked up the carbon footprint for all Nutella ingredients and this is the result.

Even though palm oil is causing a lot of problems, the carbon footprint for food products that use palm oil is still much lower than meat and dairy. And this includes the impact of deforestation.

If someone calls you a hypocrite because you’re eating less meat but eating Nutella with palm oil, you can now send them this infographic.

Should you avoid palm oil… and Nutella?

First of all, it’s important to note that in Europe, most palm oil ends up as biofuel and not in food.

Secondly, even if you would try to avoid palm oil products, it would be a part-time research job. Over 200 household items contain palm oil but only 10% mention the word palm.

And last but not least: even if you could avoid palm oil, there is no alternative that is more sustainable. Because as previously discussed, all other oils would require much more land.

So don’t focus on avoiding palm oil, but focus on eating less processed food in general. That’s the easiest way to cut down on palm oil and it’s also the foundation for a healthy and sustainable diet.

I will be honest with you, I still eat Nutella from time to time. How about you: do you still eat it or what are your favorite alternatives?