- Palm oil (Elaie guineensis) comes from palm tree fruit and has its origins from West Africa and South Africa (although 80% of the palm oil that is currently produced is from Indonesia and Malaysia)
- It has been a staple crop in West Africa for the past 5,000 years
- Palm oil has been found buried in Egyptian tombs potentially indicating the high value it had on society
- Much of the current (and important) push back to palm oil is because of how it is harvested (leading to environmental degradation and destruction) as well as poor working conditions including low wages and/or no benefits, the inability of workers to legally unionize, and lack of proper and workable equipment. Many of the workers that are most impacted are in Southeast Asia, although there are workers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa that are affected as well.
- According to the UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service, if the current rate of palm-oil production continues, 98 percent of forests in Indonesia will be destroyed by 2022.
- Palm oil is one of the more "controversial" foods in the health world. It is found in nearly half processed foods today and it used to enhance the flavor, consistency of everything from crackers to Nutella. It's also used in beauty products and animal feed.
- The West (particularly the United States) has a had a complicated history with the tropical oil. In the 1980's, palm oil was replaced with trans fat (and human made oil created by added hydrogen to liquid oils to make them more solid (or saturated).
- In the 1980's, palm oil was replaced with trans fats in many products due to concerns that consuming tropical oils might jeopardize heart health. When the link between trans fat and heart disease (released by the National Academy of Sciences in 2002), many producers switched back to including palm oil in place of trans fat (e.g. companies wanted to stay making money). In 2006, the FDA mandated that trans fat be included on the nutrition facts label.
- Similar to coconut oil, palm oil is a saturated fat (one way to tell this is because it is solid at room temperature). Given that is has a different set and type of fatty acid chains, it has a much higher melting point than coconut oil. It's also very rich in vitamin E.
- In the end, there are thousands of articles on both sides of the debate. Some focus on ethics and others on nutrition. My opinion: This is isn't about palm oil; it is about capitalism. This is about a (our) food system that is dependent on making a profit no matter who is being oppressed in the process. This is something that I wholly reject and why I am all for using palm oil that is organic, environmentally sourced, and fairly traded. There is just something about using ingredients that have widely shape African cuisine, and even more specifically West African cuisine that is grounding to me. I also enjoy the taste and believe there are positive health benefits when used properly. I am also pro eating fats (especially naturally saturated fats like avocado and coconut oil) and believe that the focus against fat has in some ways prevented us from fully focusing on refined sugar. We can enjoy palm oil while still being clear that the fight against palm oil isn't so much about the food, but rather the conditions that people are forced to work in and what this has done to the Earth. We can be compassionate + just eaters and consumers.
- If you do want to use palm oil, it is good to look for the "unrefined" variety (meaning not so harshly processed in a factory) when possible. Unrefined palm oil is one of the richest natural sources of carotenoids (which given plants their red/orange/yellow color as well as a act as antioxidants in the body).