You’ve probably heard the horror stories about palm oil. Orphaned orangutans, rain forests destroyed, smoldering fires that pollute the air. Thankfully, that's not all there is to the tale.
As the demand for palm oil has grown over the past several decades—mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which now produce roughly 85% of palm oil worldwide—the industry evolved in a way that favored large corporations, huge plantations and a focus on profit, irrespective of ecological, cultural or social impacts.
There’s another, happier story that has yet to be told. One where farmers are empowered and communities thrive. One where animals and people are well. One where the land flourishes with diversity. Let’s start here …
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the African oil palm, Elaesis Guineensis, one of the two main fruit-bearing tropical palm species (the other being Cocos Nucifera, which produces coconuts). Oil palms begin producing fruit once they're 3-4 years old, yet will continue to grow and produce year-round for up to forty years. As the oil palm grows, it sends out a new set of leaves from the tip of the trunk, which then forms flowers that turn into fruit clusters (in industry terms, these are called fresh fruit bunches, or FFB).
What is Palm Oil Used For?
The oil palm plant is incredibly versatile. The oil from the kernel is pressed separately from the the pulp, and has a higher saturated fat content. That, along with its high lauric acid content, makes palm kernel oil perfect for soaps, household cleaning products, personal care products and cosmetics. When the pulp of the fruit is pressed, the result is unrefined red palm oil, which is high in antioxidants and beta-Carotenes, and has a mid-range smoke point and nutty taste that make it a terrific cooking oil for baking, sautéing and medium heat frying.
This unrefined red palm oil can then be refined, bleached and deodorized (referred to as RBD) to remove the color and flavor, leaving a more neutral oil.
Palm Done Right extends to this processing step too.
When oil is refined at too high of a temperature, it can create toxic 3-monochloropropanediol fatty acid esters (called 3-MCPD). But when palm oil is carefully refined at lower temperatures using gentler methods, 3-MCPD levels are significantly lower (and well below risk).
From this refined state, most palm oil is separated by heating followed by rapid cooling which separates the oil into its solid and liquid forms (a process called fractioning, because it's 'dividing' the oil into two states).
- The liquid form of palm oil is called palm olein, and is a terrific frying oil due to its high smoke point and stability.
- The solid form is called palm stearin and is a great, non-hydrogenated, vegetarian option for spreads and confections, when it's blended in with nut butters it prevents separation of the fats.
Palm Oil is Everywhere
Given how versatile palm oil is, it's no wonder it's widely used across a variety of industries. If you looked through the packaged goods in your house—in your pantry, in your bathroom cabinet, in your laundry room—you’d likely find palm oil in over half of them.
Palm oil is found in roughly half of the consumer products found in an average American home.
You may think, why not just stop using so much palm? Valid question. But there are good reasons palm is so popular, and good reasons for choosing palm over other oils.
- At room temperature, palm oil naturally has the texture and plasticity of hydrogenated corn or soy oils without the hydrogenation that forms harmful trans.
- It’s resistant to oxidation and rancidity, and can extend the shelf life of other ingredients in a product.
- It can take high heat without oxidizing.
- It doesn’t have the greasy mouthfeel that other vegetable oils do.
- It blends well with other vegetable oils.
- It provides an alternative to butter for vegans and vegetarians.
- Red palm oil contains high concentrations of antioxidants, including carotenoids and tocotrienol compounds of the Vitamin E complex.
- It can improve the functionality of natural soaps and other cleaning products.
- It’s a sustainable alternative to petroleum ingredients in cosmetics.
- It’s a great emollient in lotions and balms.
When done right, it's also the highest yielding vegetable oil on the planet, producing 5-10 times more oil per acre compared to other commodity oils like soybean or Canola.
Oil palms produce more oil per hectare than any other oil source on the planet.
So while palm oil is an inherently sustainable, nutrient-dense oil, the way in which most palm oil is being produced has wreaked havoc on habitats, leading to the demise of critically-endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, the Asian rhinoceros and the Sumatran Orangutan.
The large-scale destruction of native habitats for humans, animals and plants; the burning of carbon-rich soils; and unnatural growing practices focused on synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides and pesticides has caused massive release of greenhouse gasses (GHG), contributing to global warming. Rampant, smoldering fires have also exposed entire regions to high levels of smoke and haze.