It’s in chips, cereals, chocolate, margarine, peanut butter, lipstick, lotion, soap, even bio-fuels – the list goes on – but do you even know what palm oil is? It doesn’t come from the southern California palms you might be imagining, but palm oil originates as part of that same plant family, and grows mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s used as a cooking oil in those areas, but in recent years, it’s become a common ingredient in processed foods, because it’s trans-fat-free.
But even if the labels on your favorite cookies and crackers say “zero trans fats,” you may want to think twice. Palm oil is high in saturated fats and low in polyunsaturated fats (a pretty unhealthy combo), and it’s not so hot for the environment, either. Oil palms are most often grown on recently cleared rainforest land in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the intense deforestation is pushing local species of orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos toward extinction. A current Greenpeace campaign against Nestlé asks consumers to boycott the company’s palm-oil-rich products, pointing primarily to the harm palm oil causes these endangered animals. But it’s also not doing our air quality any favors. Destruction of the rainforest not only reduces natural oxygen production, but palm oil processing plants are also a huge creator of air pollution, especially in Indonesia. Serious food for thought.