In my work as a nurse coach, I often explain to my patients the finer nuances of blood cholesterol laboratory results and how changes in nutrition can improve their numbers. One type of cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL), is otherwise known as “the bad cholesterol” because it is the type of cholesterol most responsible for causing blocked arteries. Blocked arteries increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Eating foods that are high in saturated fats, such as palm oil, significantly increases these risks because doing so raises LDL levels in the blood. I liken it to pouring grease down the kitchen sink. Eventually, the pipes are going to become clogged unless some action is taken to break up and eliminate the ever mounting accumulation of sticky goo.
Given this well established wisdom regarding palm oil’s negative effects on health, a logical expectation would be for a decreasing demand for palm oil. Instead, demand has increased significantly. From 2005-2012, the United States Department of Agriculture reported production and importation of palm oil had doubled. In 2012, importation of palm oil to the U.S. was 2.7 billion pounds. This is approximately 380 million gallons. To give you perspective, that is 500 Olympic sized pools or more volume than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico by BP Deepwater Horizon in 2010.
In addition to being a food additive, palm oil is used in personal care products (shampoo, lipstick), detergents, and has increasing use as biofuel. By 2006, palm oil represented 65 percent of oil traded internationally. Consumption of palm oil is expected to double again by 2020.
Why are we using so much palm oil? Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature and one of the world’s most versatile raw materials. Oil palms are highly efficient oil producers, with each fruit containing about 50% oil. Palm oil is obtained from both the fruit flesh and kernel of the oil palm tree. Oil palms can grow 66 feet tall with leaves up to 15 feet long. They bear clusters of fruit all year long, with each fully matured cluster weighing up to 110 pounds. This efficiency leads to land requirements that are ten times less than other oil-producing crops.
Historically, palm oil production has come at a great price to the environment, with a particularly negative impact on orangutan habitat. In 1900, there were around 315,000 orangutans. Today, fewer than 50,000 exist in the wild. Scientists say the palm oil industry is the biggest threat to orangutans, with the potential for orangutans to be extinct in the wild within 12 years. But there is more to the story. I like to believe this is an emerging positive story of the environment.
There is growing movement towards sustainable palm oil production. Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) is produced by palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO was founded in 2003 and is the world’s leading initiative on sustainable palm oil. The principal objective of RSPO is “to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation within the supply chain and open dialogue between its stakeholders.” Forty percent of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO. Members and participants include oil palm growers, manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, environmental non-governmental organizations, and social non-governmental organizations. For a list of members and other details, you may visit http://www.rspo.org/. The following brief video summarizes the history and development of sustainable palm oil production and the RSPO.
Of course, the single most effective way to prevent the extinction of orangutans is to protect their habitat through decreased demand for palm oil products. For humans, that would include decreased consumption of food-like products that elevate LDL. There are several smart phone applications developed by zoos to help you determine which products are RSPO certified and/or palm oil free. The app developed by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Android) provides a searchable list by product brand name and advises if the manufacturer utilizes RSPO certified palm oil providers. The El Paso Zoo (Android) app utilizes a bar code scanner function to check items which are in their database and only advises if the product has palm oil, regardless of source certification. Here is the link to the El Paso Zoo iPhone app version. The El Paso Zoo app is the better choice if you wish to avoid palm oil entirely.
There is room for everyone on this planet. We do not have to choose between anything except how to be smarter and more humane in the equitable development and distribution of resources. A world with more orangutans AND healthier human hearts is one example of an ideal outcome and what this nurse coach considers to be a win-win scenario.
For more information about orangutans, please visit the factsheet provided by the World Wildlife Fund http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/orangutan_factsheet2006.pdf