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Is sustainable palm oil healthy

Is sustainable palm oil healthy?

Food manufacturers are trying to convince us sustainable resourced palm oil is better than a ‘regular’ one. And they’re right. It’s better. But not necessary and directly for our health. Eventually, it’s still a palm oil that raises potential health concerns for average consumers.

A quick recap: palm oil is present in many foods, including protein bars, spreads, peanut butter and baked goods. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has said that substances produced during food processing, in particular when refining vegetable oils at high temperatures (approx. 200ºC), raise the risk for public health. They say ‘there is sufficient evidence that these substances are genotoxic (damages DNA) and carcinogenic (causes cancer)’ [1]. In other words, they’re not healthy and may cause some serious health problems in a long term.

Is sustainable palm oil healthy

The agency studied these substances, known as glycidyl fatty acid esters, or GEs, 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters. They found the highest level of them are in palm oils and palm fats, followed by other oils and fats. And although levels of GEs in palm oil halved between 2010 and 2015 due to voluntary taken by manufacturers, current levels are still considered a potential health concern. [2]

Anyway, some food makers use the term of sustainable (or sourced) palm oil. And they try to convince us it’s better than just ‘palm oil’. Or, at least, they insist telling about ‘sustainable (sourced) palm oil’, as it looks much better than just ‘palm oil’. And I agree, it may look better. And also it may seem to be ‘healthier’ for us. But, as always, the devil is really in the detail. So let’s have a look what ‘sustainably sourced’ in the context of palm oil means in fact.

What ‘sustainable palm oil’ means in reality.

RSPO, or Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, is an organisation that promotes the production and use of sustainable palm oil for people, the planet and prosperity. It was established in 2004 and nowadays 19% of all palm oil is produced respecting RSPO certification. As well as many product manufacturers, retailers, environmental and social non-governmental organisations. [3]

Is sustainable palm oil healthy

RSPO certifies palm oil that grown according to 7 RSPO Principles and Criteria 2018 [4]. These sustainability criteria relate to social, environmental and economic good practice. They are reviewed every five years via public consultation, followed by member agreement on a consensus basis for any changes or additions.

What are RSPO principles and criteria?

Here are seven (or eight, depends on categorisation of them) principles for growers to be RSPO certified.

They consist of:

  • Behave ethically and transparently
  • Operate legally and respect rights
  • Optimise productivity, efficiency, positive impacts and resilience

(These rules regard prosperity: competitive, resilient and sustainable sector)

  • Respect community and human rights and deliver benefits
  • Support smallholder inclusion
  • Respect workers’ rights and conditions

(These rules regard people: sustainable livelihood and poverty reduction)

  • Protect, conserve and enhance ecosystems and the environment

(This rule regard our planet: conserved, protected and enhanced ecosystems that provide for the next generation)

All of these principals looks really good. And they make the difference. And I’m all over it. That’s honestly great someone wants to make a process of production of palm oil better. However, there’s one thing that’s missing here. RSPO principles don’t make any difference when it comes to the effect of palm oil on the human body.

Sustainable palm oil is not any different than ‘not sustainable’ one.

At least when we talk about its impact on the human body. All of that, because RSPO certificate or any other badges don’t change the technology of palm oil processing. It still forms unhealthy substances during food processing, i.e. glycidyl fatty acid esters (GEs), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters. And still, they are not good for our health.

Is sustainable palm oil healthy

On the other hand, RSPO certified palm oil is good for all the sides involving its production, including growers, people and planet. However, keep in mind there’s a difference between the positive impact on production processes and the overall impact on human health. They may be the same, but they are not always the same. In this case, they’re not.

The bottom line.

Sustainable palm oil definitely has an advantage over the ‘regular’ palm oil. It takes into consideration all the people and processes regarding its production, like environmental responsibility, employees rights, responsible development of new plantings, to name a few.

However, it doesn’t affect an overall influence of palm oil on the human body regarding its features and impact. It doesn’t change the outcome of food processing consisting of palm oil. And last, but not least, it doesn’t change EFSA (anti)recommendation regarding it.

Eventually, sustainable (resourced) palm oil is still palm oil. And it’s not healthy for you.


[1] EFSA


[3] Green Palm

[4] RSPO

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