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The palm oil debate is ridden with misperceptions

Bill Wirtz
May 9, 2018

The debate surrounding palm oil has become warped and distorted. Policy makers have rushed to pass judgement on an industry based upon erroneous evidence and claims. Ultimately, it should be up to consumers which types of fats they consume, says Bill Wirtz.

Special labels have made their way quite significantly into our supermarkets, ranging from fair trade to different environmental standards. "No Palm Oil" is quite the peculiar one that has made its way onto a large number of products, which must have consumers wondering: what's so bad about palm oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil gained from the fruits of palm which originally came from West Africa, but which can be planted anywhere, as long as heat and rainfall are abundant. The product has gained major traction in Asia, with Malaysia and Indonesia being the largest producers to date. In 2016, total palm oil exports from Indonesia made up $14.4 billion (over half of the palm oil exports), while Malaysia stands with $9.1 billion (32 percent of exports). Third place, showing the insignificance of production outside of Asia, are the Netherlands, making up only four percent of global exports. The United States only produces 0.3 percent of the global market exports.

Misconceptions on palm oil are two-fold. On one hand, there seems to be the suggestion that palm oil is bad for your health. It's said that palm extract can lead to increased heart problems. A 1991 paper on the cardiovascular effect of palm oil calls the claimed health risks on palm oil a "trade ploy", while pointing out the oil has "little cholesterol-raising potential."

A similar study by the School of Medical Science and Technology of the Indian Institute of Technology in 2009 found that:

"A sizeable and growing body of scientific evidence indicates that palm oil's effect on blood cholesterol is relatively neutral when compared to other fats and oils."

Another peer-reviewed 2015 study by the World Journal of Cardiology also finds that palm oil as a dietary fat consumed as part of a healthy diet does not increase the risk of cardiovascular health concerns.

There remain, of course, healthier alternatives to palm oil, as the Harvard Medical School points out:

"According to Harvard nutrition experts, palm oil is better than high–trans fat shortenings and probably a better choice than butter — but vegetable oils that are naturally liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and canola oil, should still be your first choice."

And while there will be healthier alternatives to our nutritional options, we would be ill-advised to put stickers on one particular product and ask for a boycott on another. All nutrition should rely on a balance, not on an unscientific and emotional debate based on impressions, which hurt the livelihoods of millions of people and reduce consumer choice.

The second objection to palm oil is the environmental impact regarding deforestation. What is claimed here is that palm oil harvesting accounts disproportionately toward the deforestation happening in countries like Indonesia. Estimates as for the contribution of palm oil to deforestation vary (going up to 10 per cent). However, the industry has demonstrated the potential of increasing the crop yield significantly, which effectively means producing more on the same amount of land.

Especially when we start drawing comparisons, this becomes very apparent. When looking at Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) numbers, it becomes clear that palm oil crop yield is larger than the yield of coconut, soybean, rapeseed, groundnuts, and sunflower combined. This 2015 study found that palm oil gives up to eight times more yield than any other oils. This makes palm oil look very good in comparison: Soybean oil, for example, requires six times more energy, seven times more nitrogen, and fourteen times more pesticides per tonne produced than palm oil. Replacing palm oil with more land and input-intensive vegetable oils could therefore be counterproductive.

Ultimately, it stands to reason that the decision should be up to the consumer which fats he or she wants to consume. It is also necessary for public debate that we keep the facts straight, and that we don't evaluate our health decisions according to the intentions of loud modern-day environmentalists, who are unable to provide solutions to global problems. Any decision to legislate on palm oil would have serious repercussions for the labour market, international exports and internal market. And it will mislead consumers. That's bad for consumers.

Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center. He has written for Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, City AM, RealClear, The Daily Caller and CapX.
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