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Palm oil: an open debate about health and sustainability


Featured in the vast majority of the products we use on an everyday basis, over the last year palm oil sparked off a huge debate about its growing use and the damage that this ingredient seems to cause to health and the environment.

The matter acquired great visibility from 13 December last year onwards, when a number of European laws imposed to explicitly declare ingredients on the labels of food and cosmetics: this way, millions of consumers discovered that the ‘vague’ expression “vegetable oils and fats” concealed a high percentage of palm oil, an ingredient often accused of increasing cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

Although deriving from plants, palm oil has atypical features. Indeed, due to its chemical composition it is more similar to butter and it is used instead of butter in a number of industrial preparations following more stringent WHO regulations on hydrogenated fat such as margarine. Unlike the oil driving from olives and sunflowers, this oil is solid, tasteless, does not go rancid and shows good resistance to temperatures. More importantly, it is available on the market in large amounts at much lower prices.

These features led consumers to be in close contact with palm oil today at any time of day: when washing their clothes, when washing their hands with soap or brushing their teeth, though also when putting a slice of broad in the toaster, when eating an ice cream in front of the TV or when eating biscuits or cereals in milk.

Palm oil is at the centre of fierce criticism also due to its environmental impact: the conversion of entire forests to plantations of palm oil obtained with the constant spread of fires, caused a constant layer of smog to cover land in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

These dramatic events led to a growing awareness campaign about the use of this substance. Luckily the change of trend reversal seems to have started in various companies and chains of supermarkets, which have removed this tropical fat from its products and shelves or at least have regulated its use.

Big companies such as Barilla, Ikea and Heinz have completed their conversion to using sustainable and certified palm oil. Namely, Heinz certifies the sustainability of sources by adhering to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a not-for-profit organisation that brings together all the parties in question, from producers to manufacturers, traders and retailers of palm oil to regulate and protect international standards to use sustainable products.