The cooking oil that’s healthy for our planet and its people

By Jonny Bowden

Palm oil is having a moment. Long misunderstood and under-appreciated as a health food, people are finding that the more they learn about palm oil, the better they like it. Which is a very good thing indeed. About 2.3 billion people around the world currently depend on palm oil as an important part of their food supply. It’s in about half of our packaged foods, including products made by well-known companies as Kellogg’s, Nestle and Proctor & Gamble.

I’ve noticed a significant upturn in the number of nutritionists and health professionals who are really excited about palm oil. This better-for-you fat is turning heads with its impressive health benefits (more on that in a moment). But some environmentalists are questioning if the rise of this wholesome oil from Malaysia is good for the planet.

Actually, it is. The common misconception — that palm oil is devastating to the environment — needs to finally be put to rest. Here’s why you can feel positive about consuming certified sustainable palm oil.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is the world’s first certified sustainable vegetable oil, making it perfect for both paleo/keto type diets and for vegetarian/vegan ones! It comes from the fruit of the oil palm trees, which bear fruit for 20 to 30 years. Much like olive oil, it is produced by simple steaming and pressing. A one-acre oil palm plantation produces 11 times more oil than a soybean field, 10 times more than sunflower and 7 times more than canola.

Approximately 35 percent of the world’s palm oil – and about 80 percent of the palm oil in the U.S. – is grown and produced in Malaysia, where it is certified sustainable. (Some people get their geography mixed up. They think Indonesia and Malaysia are the same country. They’re not.) In Malaysia, palm oil is legally cultivated only on land zoned for agriculture. This may not be true in other countries. Many of today’s oil palm plantations in Malaysia once farmed rubber or coconut but have since been converted to more efficient and sustainable oil palm. No orangutan habitats are harmed in the making of Malaysian sustainable palm oil, and that matters to me.

Palm oil is good for our planet

As we consume more palm oil, there is less strain on our natural resources than if we increased our use of other edible seed oils. The oil palm is the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world, requiring only 0.26 hectares (a little more than ½ acre) of land to produce one ton of oil. Contrast that with soybean, sunflower and rapeseed (canola) which require 2.22, 2 and 1.52 hectares, respectively, to produce the same amount of oil. Without the oil palm, the amount of deforestation needed to plant other oil crops to feed the world would be unimaginable.

Unlike corn, canola and soy crops, oil palm plantations don’t have to be cleared and replanted annually so there’s significantly less environmental impact. Oil palm plantations are home to a wide assortment of animals such as collared kingfishers, long-tailed macaques, green-crested lizards and wild pigs.

Malaysia is actually the first country to produce sustainable palm oil, which is why I always specifically recommend Malaysian palm oil. That’s because Malaysia has strict standards to protect the environment as well as the palm oil industry workers. The country’s own sustainability certification, Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) is emerging as an international symbol of quality.

But wait, there’s more!

Additional earth-friendly benefits of Malaysia’s palm oil include:

  • It requires fewer fertilizers, pesticides and fuel energy than other major oilseed crops.
  • Barn owls and snakes are used to control the pest populations on Malaysian oil palm plantations, reducing the need for harmful chemical pesticides.
  • Malaysia has a long-standing zero burning policy. Instead, empty fruit bunches, old fronds and palm oil mill effluent are recycled to return nutrients to the soil. Old palms are pushed over, shredded and left to decompose in the warm sun. This saves on the use of inorganic fertilizers and, there’s no air pollution from burning the old palms.
  • Malaysia is home to some of the world’s oldest rainforests. Wildlife is carefully protected and natural rainforests conserved. The palm oil industry has established the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund to support education and conservation programs.
  • The Malaysian palm oil industry is also credited for bringing farmers out of poverty, and building community roads, schools and healthcare facilities.

Yes, but is palm oil healthy?

In a word, yes. Very much so. Like many saturated fats, it suffered from unfair demonization but has since been vindicated with substantial research over the last eight years showing absolutely no relationship between saturated fat intake and heart disease, or mortality in general. We now know that many saturated fatty acids, such as the ones in coconut oil, Malaysian palm oil or even grass-fed beef, are very good for you. Palm oil is considered a very healthy fat, and it’s totally friendly to vegetarian and vegan diets since it’s 100 percent plant-based. It’s also naturally free of trans fats and it is non-GMO. You can also feel good about consuming products with palm oil because its effects on blood cholesterol levels are similar to heart-healthy olive oil. That’s great news for families trying to eat clean!

Malaysian red palm oil is nature’s richest source of vitamin E tocotrienols. These are powerful antioxidants that support brain and heart health. And red palm oil also has more beta carotenes (pro-Vitamin A) than tomatoes or carrots.

Cooking with palm oil

You can find certified sustainable palm oil at ethnic markets as well as some supermarkets. Palm oil is flavor-neutral and has a buttery texture, making it a versatile substitute for other vegetable oils. It can be used in most recipes including baked goods. It stands up to high heat without breaking down, which makes it an excellent choice for BBQ marinades, stir fry and fried foods.

Final thoughts

The best solution for protecting our world’s wildlife and rainforests is to support tougher standards. One way this can be done is by supporting the global use of certified sustainable palm oil, which is produced in compliance with stringent laws protecting wildlife, the environment and small family farmers.

Malaysia is the world’s gold standard for responsible, sustainable oil palm cultivation. By insisting that food manufacturers use only certified sustainable palm oil, you can play a major role in ensuring that the positive environmental trends happening in Malaysia will continue and possibly be replicated in other palm oil-producing countries around the world.

Best-selling author Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, (www.JonnyBowden.com) is a nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition and health. A member of Media Relations Agency’s panel of highly respected third-party experts, he offers his expertise to educate and express professional opinion about certain companies and/or products.