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As the U.S. bans trans fats, palm oil is poised to take over – but at what cost?

  • The impending ban by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration comes after the intake of trans fats was shown to cause increased risk of coronary heart disease.
  • With palm oil touted as a good substitute to trans fats, the U.S. palm oil market is set to increase 20 percent per year.
  • But conservationists worry that as demand increases, so will pressure on the world’s tropical forests as plantations expand.

By 2018, artificial trans fats will no longer be found in snack foods, baked goods, and frozen vegetables that Americans feed their families, as announced by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last June. The ban came after the intake of trans fats was shown to cause increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Palm oil has been slated as a primary replacement, with imports into the U.S. steadily increasing since a trans fat labeling requirement was announced in 2006.

Embroiled in controversy over environmental degradation in Southeast Asia and health concerns in Europe, palm oil has industry stakeholders wondering whether its increased prevalence in the U.S. will promote or hinder sustainability efforts.

“It’s the cheapest oil on the market,” says Lael Goodman, a researcher for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. “We’ve already seen it start to replace some of the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.” Its ability to remain solid at room temperature also makes it desirable in many food and beauty products, from lipstick to muffins.

Palm oil is made by pressing the fruit of oil palm trees. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Environmentalists warn against increasing imports of palm oil that are not sustainably sourced; i.e., sourced in a way that is not damaging to the environment and labor force. This is likely to involve certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a multi-stakeholder initiative that is the industry’s widest-reaching certification scheme (although not without critics).

Most conservation groups agree that sustainably produced palm oil is the only way forward.

In Indonesia and Malaysia where 85 percent of the world’s palm oil is produced, its production has been linked to mass deforestation, species loss, human rights abuses, and high C02 emissions from destroyed peat-lands and forests. Recent expansions into Africa, as well as Central and South America, have critics worried that the environmental impacts of palm oil production are having an increasingly global reach.

“It’s possible for [the] palm oil industry to continue to develop without another tree needing to fall,” says Helen Buckland of the Sumatran Orangutan Foundation, a group that works in Indonesia and campaigns from London. “We are not anti-development, we are not anti-palm oil, we are pro-forest and we can have palm oil alongside forests.”

Land recently deforested for an oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Presently, the U.S. market size for palm oil is 2.6 billion pounds (1.2 billion kilograms), and is set to increase by half a billion pounds a year as reported by Bloomberg news.

Worries amidst health concerns in Europe

While environmental concerns are widely discussed, health and nutrition aspects of palm oil are hotly debated in Europe, where consumers have been more cautious in accepting its widespread use in food products than their U.S. counterparts.

Deforestation for palm oil has been linked to habitat loss for many species, such as the endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Although trans fats are not officially banned in Europe, palm oil is frequently used in its place, according to Laure d’Astorg, Secretary General of the French Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil.

“Companies often use palm oil as a replacement for partially hydrogenated vegetable fats,” she says, adding that it is a “much healthier substitute.”

However, many European consumers and food advocacy groups have questioned the nutrition aspects of palm oil, which is relatively high in saturated fats.

Boycotts of food products containing palm oil on both health and environmental grounds have gained traction in Italy, France and Belgium, prompting industry leaders to band together and create campaigns to inform consumers.

“The food industry has to be transparent and explain and educate consumers about the role of fats in general and of palm oil in particular in a healthy diet,” says Margot Logman, Program Coordinator of the European Palm Oil Alliance. Aside from publishing comprehensive information materials on palm oil’s nutritional properties, they also work with other national alliances around Europe to share information and organize advocacy events.

“European consumers don’t realise that palm oil is a natural product, squeezed from a fruit, with a balanced fatty acid composition,” she adds. According to Logman, since the EU mandatory labelling of palm oil came into effect in December of 2014, the organization ramped up efforts to ensure consumers were informed when it came to the widely-used tropical oil.

“It is important for French consumers to better understand that there is no bad or good vegetable oils,” says Laure d’Astorg, the secretary general of the French Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil. “Each have their own benefits.”

Yet whether or not palm oil can be considered entirely safe for consumption is still debated in Europe.

In December, the European Commission ruled that palm oil is no different than other natural products with high saturated fat content. However, some studies are still exploring links between cardiovascular health and palm oil and call for further research on the topic. Rocking the boat yet again, in late January, the French Senate proposed a progressive import tax on palm oil that would go into effect by 2017. The proposal cited concerns related to the fat content of the oil.

Oil palm fruit in the Congo. Oil palm trees are native to parts of Africa, and are in effect “coming home” as the palm oil industry looks to expand production out of Southeast Asia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Some in the industry feel the proposed tax will limit intake in Europe and stunt the progress made on producing palm oil sustainably in Asia.

“If the industry’s alliance members cannot buy palm oil tomorrow, what will encourage producers (in Asia) to change their practices?” asked Réveilhac Guillaume, President of the French Alliance on Sustainable Palm oil in a release.

According to a statement issued by the Alliance, increasing taxes on palm oil would not significantly impact French consumers’ health, as palm oil makes up only 3.2 percent their daily fat intake, according to a 2014 study by French research center CREDOC.

Nutella Under Fire

In addition to the palm oil tax, proposed bans in Europe have taken center stage in recent years.

In mid-2015, Nutella, Europe’s beloved hazelnut spread, came under fire when French Ecological Minister Ségolène Royal suggested a ban due to its palm oil content. The creamy spread, she said in a television interview, was a major driver of deforestation.

Italian politicians lashed out, with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi promising to eat Nutella for dinner the very same evening.

Deforestation for palm oil in Indonesia, which is the epicenter of global production. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Greenpeace issued a statement condemning the statements made by Royal, who later apologized. Unfortunately for Royal, she had picked the wrong foe. Ferrero, the Italian confectionary company responsible for Nutella, has been lauded by Greenpeace and WWF as a leader in palm oil supply chain sustainability. Banning palm oil, say these NGOs, will not lead to the transformation of a sustainable supply chain. Instead, they argue it will push the market towards other oils, like soybean oil, which have smaller yields and require more land to grow.

Taking action in the U.S.

Consumers in the U.S. should take cues from their European counterparts when it comes to engaging with the topic, asserts Goodman. “Europe has always been ahead of the U.S. in terms of caring about palm oil sustainability,” she said.

While the EU does not take a stance on the health and nutrition of palm oil, according to Goodman, health concerns on the producer side are clear. The upcoming ban on artificial trans fats, she said, may be an opportunity for consumers to continue to push for sustainable palm oil.

Consumers, says Goodman, are increasingly taking interest. “People are becoming aware that this is something that affects the in their everyday lives,” she adds. Chances are, they are using palm oil many times per day.”

Goodman feels that campaigns targeting companies and asking for commitments to sustainable palm oil is the best way to lead to change. Consumers, she said, should ask why products are still linked to rainforest destruction and demand change.

“Companies are really responsive about their public image, since they want to be a household name that can be trusted,” she says. “When that trust erodes, they start to realize it’s a big problem.”