Why is Palm Oil Used in Food, and is It Really Irreplaceable?
Characteristics of Palm Oil
Palm Oil is a vegetable fat that is semi-solid at room temperature. This physical characteristic is due to the material’s high content of single bonds. Single bonds are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms and therefore described as “saturated” bonds. These saturated bonds allow the molecules in palm oil to sit stacked, one on top of the other. That ability to “stack” is what makes palm oil partially solid at room temperature. In contrast, double bonds give molecules a zigzag shape making them unable to stack on top of each other and therefore liquid at room temperature.
The high saturated bond content of palm oil provides greater oxidative stability (or shelf life). Palm oil’s biggest competitor, soybean oil, requires hydrogenation or the addition of linoleic acid to achieve a comparable oxidative stability. Around 2005, trans fats became very unpopular due to their connection with heart disease. At that time, soybean oil was the top-selling vegetable oil in the world but relied on hydrogenation for shelf life extension. The hydrogenation process adds trans-fats to foods. The inclusion of trans-fats on American food labels drove the demand for non-hydrogenated oils. Soybean producers moved away from hydrogenation and began to add linoleic acid to increase oxidative stability but couldn’t come on line fast enough. This is the point when palm oil took the lead in the global market.
Palm oil has the highest melting point at 44 deg C which allows this material to provide the smooth yet firm texture we see in margarine and frosting. Margarine used to be made with beef fat and cottonseed oil (which also has a high melting point of 34 deg C). Later beef fat was replaced by hydrogenated vegetable oils. You will also find palm oil used in the baked goods found in the bakery section of American grocery stores. Hard cookies and crackers are places you will find palm oil in packaged goods. Glycerides is another place where palm oil can hide. Glycerides found in vegan frozen foods are typically made from palm oil.
US soybean oil is also at a price disadvantage when compared to palm oil. We can see from the chart below there is a $240/ton price spread between US soybean oil and Indonesian palm oil. This equates to a 12 cent per pound difference between these materials. Manufacturers buying a truckload of material (40,000-lbs) are going to pay an additional $10,000 per truck for soy versus palm oil.
Certified Organic Palm Oil
Natural food manufacturers selling to a typically more informed consumer often will use” organic” palm oil to allay shoppers’ fears regarding environmental shortcuts and abuse. Certified organic grocer Whole Foods has many products on its shelf made with certified organic palm oil. The problem is organic certification protects the earth but not the people of the region. The US Department of Labor lists palm oil coming from Indonesia and Malaysia as being produced with child labor. Malaysian palm oil is also produced with forced labor. It is also common practice for customary land rights to be disregarded by local corrupt officials in third world countries. Families that have farmed a plot of land for generations, and thereby own it according to national law, will discover their land has been sold by local officials and they risk prosecution or physical harm if they don’t vacate. Another practice is to promise employment in exchange for land rights. NGO reports show again and again, previous landholders are frequently let go after just a few months of work. Another consequence of planting high water crops like palm oil is that neighboring fields are no longer able to produce staple crops, like rice. These practices drive down the price of agricultural products from tropical third world countries and organic certification won’t keep this from happening.
Is Palm Oil Irreplaceable?
Palm oil has some interesting properties, but it is not irreplaceable. Soybean oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower seed oil, cottonseed oil can all replace palm oil. The difference will always be price and availability. It is up to the consumer to look for and avoid palm oil in their food. Overreliance on a single vegetable oil or protein will lead to abuses in production. Vegans and vegetarians should seek out variety. Unfortunately, consumers driven solely by price must also accept deforestation, loss of species and human rights abuses. As the old saying goes, there is no free lunch!