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Health and Fitness News

Palm Oil Under Fire

Good or bad? You be the judge.

Palm oil recently made headlines as a controversial ingredient found in the popular hazelnut spread Nutella. Even though Nutella was singled out, palm oil is now the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world.

Health scientists question the safety of palm oil and environmentalists are up in arms over the affect its production has on the planet's sustainability.

With so much fear over palm oil, are these concerns valid? Is palm oil safe to consume and is it worth the deforestation it has brought about to harvest? Read on to find out for yourself.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is derived from a small, reddish-colored fruit found on the oil palm tree. Thriving in warm, humid climates near the equator, 85 percent of all palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia. Other countries that harvest palm oil include Thailand, Nigeria, Colombia, Ecuador, and Papua New Guinea. Currently, global demand for palm oil is expanding and in these countries, tropical forests and peatlands are being continually cleared to plant oil palm plantations.

Where's It Found?

You may not realize it, but palm oil is found in nearly half of all packaged foods, including ice cream, cookies, chocolate, biscuits, margarine, chips, and other processed foods. Products such as detergent, soap, shampoo, and diesel fuel may also contain palm oil. However, food labels may not say “palm oil” in the ingredient list, because palm oil and its derivatives go by other names. A few you may recognize include vegetable oil, palm kernel, palm fruit oil, palmitate, glyceryl, stearate, and sodium lauryl sulfate to name a few.

Why Palm Oil?

Palm oil is the most commonly used cooking oil in many developing countries, since it's a high-quality oil and less expensive to produce than other oils. Unlike many fats, palm oil is especially good at making foods creamy enough to spread easily. Hence why it is found in some of your favorite spreadable foods, such as Nutella, margarine, frostings, and peanut butter.

After the nutrition world recognized the health dangers of hydrogenated oils and trans fats and food manufacturers began phasing the fat out of their products, many turned to palm oil as a substitute fat.

Health Concerns

There are two concerns when it comes to palm oil.

First, high levels of contaminants are found in palm oil. Studies based on animal studies show that when these contaminants are heated over high temperatures (higher than 392 degrees Fahrenheit) and refined, they may damage DNA and cause cancer. High levels of exposure to these contaminants are especially dangerous for young children but may pose a health risk for any age. Margarines, cakes, and pastries are the main source of dangerous palm oils.

Don't process the oil at high temperatures? Then you're supposedly safe. Manufacturers of Nutella claim their product can be part of a healthy diet because their palm oil is processed at temperatures below 392 degrees to avoid the dangers of contaminants.

The second health concern posed by palm oil is its high level of saturated fat. Saturated fats are known to be bad for your heart because they raise bad cholesterol levels. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats like olive oil and corn oil are healthier options.

Environmental Concerns

The production of palm oil is one of the main causes of tropical deforestation. As a result, the palm oil that makes your favorite foods so delectable are aiding in the endangerment of several animal species including elephants, rhinos, tigers, and orangutans, as well as resulting in human rights violations. Environmentalist groups are rallying the public to sign petitions, boycott palm oil products, and support organizations that seek to preserve the rain forests.

So now you have to decide—is the flavor of palm oil worth the cost?

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