Palm oil, a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil, has lately come under fire.
Already a cause for concern among environmental activist groups as it is linked with issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, palm oil is now said to be a threat to human health.
“Palm oil is a disaster in every respect – not only for the rainforest and its inhabitants, but also for our health,” says Reinhard Behrend of Rainforest Rescue.
According to scientists at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), refined palm oil and products manufactured with it contain very high amounts of fatty acid esters that cause cancer and damage DNA, the liver, kidneys and testes. The contaminants are byproducts of the industrial processing of palm oil, the body adds.
Behrend adds: “Toddlers and children that consume large quantities of processed foods are especially vulnerable: around half of all food products found in our supermarkets are made with palm oil – and the toxins it contains. For young children, a slice of bread with chocolate-hazelnut spread for breakfast is enough to expose them to critical amounts of the contaminants. The risk is particularly high for infants due to the palm oil used in industrial baby foods.”
According to him, non-tropical vegetable oils such as sunflower, rapeseed and olive are viable alternatives. He called on policymakers to not only warn the citizenry about palm oil, but to actively protect them from its dangers.
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms are originally from Western Africa, but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant.
Today, palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America, with 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia. Observers however say that the production, most of the time, does not utilise sustainable measures.
Activists are bothered by the extent to which land and forests are cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation, according to the WWF, is pushing many species to extinction; with findings showing that, if nothing changes, species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next five to 10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than three years.