Avoid palm oil to protect your heart and orangutans, says pressure group

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Palm oil, Trans fat

A full-page ad in the New York Times encourages consumers to steer
clear of palm oil, claiming increased demand for the ingredient is
driving the orangutan towards extinction.

The ad, placed by pressure group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), shows a baby orangutan sitting amongst the skulls of adult orangutans with the headline "Dying for a Cookie?"

According to the CSPI, increased demand for palm oil is fueling destruction of the habitats of Sumatran and Bornean orangutans as rainforest is increasingly being cleared to make room for oil palm plantations.

Already found in a wide variety of food products from instant noodles and crisps to cake mixes and snacks, palm oil is currently enjoying increasing appeal as an ingredient because it is free of artery-clogging trans fats, formed when fats are hydrogenated to make them more solid and extend their shelf life.

But the CSPI claims that palm oil is actually "almost as conducive to heart disease as the partially hydrogenated oil it is frequently replacing."

The New York Times ad urges consumers to "read labels and select products with non-hydrogenated soybean, corn, canola, or peanut oils, which don't harm your arteries- or the rainforest."

It names brands such as Keebler, Oreo, Mrs Fields and Pepperidge Farm, which use palm oil in their formulations, and concludes "We can find other ways of making cookies. We can't​ find other ways of making orangutans."

This is not the first time the food industry has been accused of driving orangutans to extinction. In September last year the UK pressure group Friends of the Earth published its "Oil for Ape Scandal,"​ which concluded that without urgent intervention the palm oil trade could cause the extinction of Asia's only great ape within 12 years.

While already used extensively in Europe as manufacturers move to replace trans fatty acids in their food formulations, palm oil in the US has only recently started to recover from a strongly negative campaign started 20 years ago and linking the oil to heart disease.

However, a number of consumer studies conducted in recent years by leading palm oil supplier Loders Croklaan revealed the same levels of consumer acceptance for palm oil as for other oils. This encouragement contributed to food manufacturers in the US increasingly turning towards palm oil as an alternative to hydrogenated oils.

Primary appeals of the oil are its functionality, its long shelf-life without the need for chemical processing, and its steady prices, which are attractive to a food industry vulnerable to price fluctuations from other popular oilseeds, such as soybeans and rapeseeds.

Over 26 million tons of palm oil are currently produced worldwide in tropical countries, with the number one supplier being Malaysia - which produced over 13 million tons last year - followed by Indonesia and a raft of smaller producers.

Indeed, Loders Croklaan last year opened a new plant that increased its capacity by 200 percent due to increased demand for the oil.

And to calm the US industry's historical concerns about the negative health effects of the product, the company recently brought together an independent group of nutrition, medical and manufacturing experts who examined the oil's functionality in food products and possible impacts on consumer health.

After examining the science, the panel concluded that palm oil is a "reasonable alternative"​ to trans fatty acids, but concluded that due to a lack of long-term data, "the long-term risks or benefits of using natural occurring saturated fats versus interesterified fats in the food supply is not known."

But according to the CSPI, "palm oil should be treated as an ingredient of last resort by consumers and corporations alike," saying that where it is used, it should be obtained from environmentally sustainable sources.

The consumer advocacy group has urged Wal-Mart, as the nation's biggest grocery retailer, to adopt a corporate policy on sustainable palm oil. According to the CSPI, Wal-Mart should reformulate its house brands to use as little of the ingredient as possible, to seek out sustainable sources for the palm oil it does use, and to insist that its suppliers do the same.

Related topics: Fats & oils

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