Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cheap Fat?

Palm oil from Ghana with its natural dark colo...Image via Wikipedia
Most people don’t notice it, but there’s an ingredient lurking in an increasing number of processed foods that isn’t terribly good for them – and is now being widely recognised as being disastrous for the environment. Perversely, grown at the expense of vast tracts of destroyed rainforest, it’s also a key ingredient in the ‘biofuels’ that are being touted as a ‘green’ alternative to hydrocarbons.

It’s palm oil. And it really is worth avoiding.

Palm oil is high in saturated fats but it’s popular with industrial food processors because it’s cheap, colourless and flavourless. Although it’s naturally a reddish colour, this can be removed by boiling – and further industrial processing refines the oil. That processing also removes many of the beneficial components of the oil.

Because of its saturated fat content, it’s thick and semi-solid at room temperature, so it’s quite good as a dairy replacement: expect to find it, for instance, as the base fat in cheap (including locally made brands) processed ice creams. Its natural gloopiness also makes it a neat replacement for the hydrogenated fats, or trans fats, that processors are now avoiding because of increasing evidence that they’re really bad for your heart and possibly have other unwanted effects, too.

Lay’s crisps are fried in palm oil and many other locally made brands of biscuits, crisps and candy bars contain it. It’s also the fat that KFC uses to fry its chicken in, apparently. The vast majority of American branded cookies are made with palm oil. Don’t think that European producers are palm oil free, though: palm oil is popular with them, too. In fact, if it’s a packaged, processed food product, it’s likely to include palm oil in its ingredients list – often as the principal or only fat.

Native to West Africa, the oil palm has been exported to Malaysia and Indonesia, which are the world’s biggest producers. It’s used to produce both palm oil (from the fruit) and palm kernel oil (from the nut). The production of the oil is frequently at the expense of bio-diverse rainforest habitats, which are being cleared on an enormous scale to make way for further plantations. It’s being directly linked to the destruction of orangutan habitats. So this nice, cheap fat comes at a price: consumer health and the environment both!

If you’re interested in a cynical attempt to paint palm oil as beneficial, do go here. This organisation, incidentally shares its chairman with the Orangutan Conservancy. Which is food for thought indeed.
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1 comment:

Mars said...

all yummy things ultimately kill....*sigh*