Palm Oil – What the hell is it and why is it bad?

Image by Emily Ehlers

To me it seems that palm oil is my generations CFC (chlorofluorocarbon). Think about it, the eighties was the decade of big hair and what were people using to keep it looking so deliciously bouffant? They were using hair spray – unceremoniously – to the point that they even named a Broadway musical in its honour. We now know that all aerosols (as well as refrigerators) were using chemical compounds called CFC’s. Retrospect is a spiteful thing because we also know just how damaging these chemicals were to the environment. However then, due to lack of information (or perhaps more a case of being misled by those that had the information?) people were going about their everyday lives not realising that they were actively contributing to irreparable environmental damage. Then in 1985 the bubble burst and the announcement came(1); there was a hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic and CFC’s alone had caused it. Fast forward to 2011 and we are in the same predicament, but there is a new player at our table… palm oil. Everyone seems to be talking about it but no one seems to know what it is and why, all of a sudden, ‘palm oil’ is a massive issue.

So, what is it?

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree which is native to West Africa. It is not a fussy plant and will flourish anywhere that is hot and has abundant rainfall; read rain forests (aka orangutan habitat).  It is the second most consumed edible oil in the world (behind soybean oil)(2) and a massive 40% of all packaged food products in Australia contain it(3). It is found in biscuits, crackers, batters, chips, pet foods, cosmetics and cleaners. To put that into perspective – every year, Australians consume 10 kilograms of palm oil each(4)!

Why is it now a problem?

Packaged and processed food has been around since at least 1851(5), so why is it only becoming a problem now? Processed food is not considered a healthy choice (shocking I know) and with the obesity epidemic providing a catalyst for research into the industry, they realised they needed to make changes before its target market either smartened up or… well… died! Trans-fatty acids were the ‘baddie’ of the moment and they needed a non-hydrogenated oil substitute – and they found it in the juicy kernel of the oil palm tree. Demand exploded and Indonesia and Malaysia, with their vast rainforests, responded. Since introducing the oil palm the two countries now produce 85% of the world supply of palm oil. Unfortunately these rainforests also provide homes to indigenous people and local communities; habitats for Sumatran tigers, pygmy elephants, sun bears, leopards, orangutans and many more wonderful and rare creatures(6). For the two species of orangutans (Sumatran and Bornean) – it is their last remaining habitat on the planet.

What are the main issues?


Image by Emily Ehlers

Indonesia has the highest rate of tropical rain forest loss in the word(7) and since 2008 has held the Guinness World Record for the highest rate of forest clearance (an area equal to 300 soccer fields goes every hour)(8). This is while there are millions of hectares of degraded land available for palm oil plantations – however companies gain additional timber profits from high conservation value rainforest. How screwed up is that? This being said we cannot fall into the trap of blaming this developing country just trying to find its feet – especially when we are the ones causing the demand.

Global Warming (little country, big footprint)

The rainforests cleared are wet and swampy which means the damp soils retain the peat (undecomposed plant matter that has accumulated over thousands of years)(9). When the soil dries it releases large amounts of methane; a gas that has a global warming impact 23 times of CO²(10). And to add insult to injury – it is expensive to bull-doze such huge areas of rainforest and there is a far quicker and more cost-effective solution… burn it. These long-burning fires emit massive amounts of carbon. With these collective assaults it is now estimated that 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions come from this regions rainforest destruction(10).

Social Issues

As previously mentioned these rainforests are home to many indigenous and local communities. The palm oil industry, good or bad, provides millions of people a livelihood. As often seen in developing countries however, human rights are being abused and there are conflicts associated with the land. Heavy use of pesticides has damaged waterways to the point where some communities no longer have clean water to bathe in or drink(11).  So while a blanket boycott would be great for orangutans it would decimate the local people. Thankfully there is hope with sustainable agricultural practices, trades and professions that would support their status quo without condemning the future of their community and our planet.

Our Health

Looks like Mother Earth isn’t the only one that has to watch her health. This ‘good’ alternative to hydrogenated fats is not the magical solution it was pegged as. It is extremely high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fats. Biomedical research now supports the fact that it increases risk of heart disease to the point that way back in February 2007 Christopher Pyne, Assistant Minister for Health and Aging, circulated this media release(12):

“While looking at the transfat issue we have no wish to undo much of this good work, for example, by manufacturers and retailers returning to use saturated fats such as palm oil, tallow and lard… Already I have seen reports in the media where a food outlet states it is telling consumers that they had gone ‘transfat free’ when, in fact, it is using palm oil, which is high in saturated fat… While we are consuming levels of transfats well below the WHO recommendation, we are eating above the WHO recommended levels of saturated fats… We urgently need to reduce our saturated fats intake too”

In conclusion…

So there we have it ladies and gents. That is what palm oil is and I most certainly hope I have displayed how – in its current form – it is bad. But there IS light at the end of the tunnel.

To find out what you can do to avoid or at least limit your use of unsustainable palm oil please click here to continue on to Part 2 of this article.


  1. Handwerk B. 2010. Whatever Happened to the Ozone Hole?. 31 May, 2011).
  2. What is Palm Oil? Palm Oil Action (accessed 30 May, 2011).
  3. Hickman. 2009. The guilty secrets of palm oil: Are you unwittingly contributing to the devastation of the rain forests?. (accessed 30 May, 2011)
  4. Ballhorn et al. 2009. Derivation of burn scar depths and estimation of carbon emissions with LIDAR in Indonesian peatlands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  5. Dubovoj, S. Fujinaka, M. Atkins, W. 2005. International Directory of Company Histories. (accessed 2 June, 2011).
  6. King, T. 2010. Suffering Species. (accessed 2 June, 2011).
  7. Australia. Australian Government Submissions. 2010. Zoos Victoria’s Submission to the Food Labelling Review Committee; In support of mandatory labelling of Palm Oil (including Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) on all packaged food products. Australian Government Publishing Service.
  8. Deforestation. Palm Oil Action Organisation. (accessed 30 May, 2011).
  9. 9.     Kaat, A. and M. Silvius. 2006. Peatland Degradation Fuels Climate Change. Wetlands International. (accessed 3 June, 2011).
  10. Global Warming. Palm Oil Action Organisation. (accessed 30 May, 2011).
  11. The Social Costs of Palm Oil. Palm Oil Action Organisation. (accessed 30 May, 2011).
  12. Australia. Australian Government: Department of Health and Aging. 2007.Australia-New Zealand Collaboration on Transfats launched. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

8 thoughts on “Palm Oil – What the hell is it and why is it bad?

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