Over the past decade, palm oil has appeared in about half our packaged foods, often hidden as unspecified “vegetable oil”. Environmentalists argue it's production is driving rainforest destruction, affecting native habitat and massively increasing global greenhouse emissions.
What is palm oil?
It comes from the fruit of the oil palm, a small tree native to West Africa – where it has been used for centuries – and is now also grown in other tropical countries.
- Commercial palm oil plantations have ballooned in the past two decades - it's a high-yielding crop that is relatively cheap for food producers to use.
- Perfect for packaged products with a long shelf-life - a high saturated fat content means it remains more stable and solid than many other oils when used in processed foods.
- Most palm oil is exported for use in processed food in China, the EU and India.
- There are increasing efforts by producing countries to also promote its use as a biofuel.
Many food manufacturers have switched to using palm oil in a rush to remove unhealthy trans fats from their products. WWF Australia believes half of all packaged foods in Australia now contain palm oil, including some potato chips and various sweet and savoury biscuits. It is also found in some cosmetics (where it is sometimes labelled as Elaeis guineensis) and some cleaning products.
Effects on heart health
Palm oil contains more than 50% saturated fat, although it is also rich in carotenoids (antioxidants). It does not contain cholesterol, but can cause raised total cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol levels, depending on the levels of other fats in the diet.
The WHO believes there’s convincing evidence that palmitic acid (which is found in palm oil) increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and The National Heart Foundation of Australia recommends avoiding palm oil due to its high level of saturated fats. It’s important to remember that the impact of palm oil on heart disease may be affected by a range of other lifestyle and dietary factors, such as lack of exercise, stress, the amount of other saturated or trans fats consumed, as well as hereditary factors.