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A good-eating trend that's damaging to the environment

A good-eating trend that's damaging to the environment

Wednesday, January 25, 2006 

In search of a more healthful lifestyle, Americans are bypassing foods with trans fat, which is a good thing. But that trend is also responsible for a bad thing happening in the world's rain forests.
Food manufacturers seeking to replace partially hydrogenated or trans fats are increasingly using palm oil. It is fast becoming the key ingredient in shortenings, baked goods, candies and deep-fried snack foods.
Manufacturers use palm oil because of its low cost, stability at high temperatures, mild flavor and long shelf life. The oil is produced from palm trees grown on plantations, largely in Malaysia and Indonesia. To make room for expansion in those lands, as well in other palm oil-producing countries, landowners clear forests -- a process devastating to wildlife as well as to indigenous people being forced from their ancestral lands.
While we're feeling guiltless munching on trans fat-free microwave popcorn and store-bought cr×_-filled cookies, the endangered Sumatran tiger and the orangutan pay the price, possibly until extinction.
There is little hope that anything will produce a wholesale reversal of what is happening, but there are things that can be done to proceed in a more environmentally sound way.
In a recent editorial in Nutrition Action magazine, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, urged agencies such as the World Bank and the Agency for International Development, which provides financial assistance to developing nations, to insist that countries start new palm oil plantations only on idle land previously used for agriculture and that they restore rain forests in areas that could be home to endangered wildlife.
The American public also can take steps, he said.
"We can all vote with our pocketbooks and simply avoid foods that contain either palm oil or partially hydrogenated oil," he said.
The U.K. environmental group Friends of the Earth praised the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a newly formed consortium of palm-oil producers and processors, food manufacturers, conservation groups and non-governmental organizations, which has set criteria for sustainable palm oil production. Among its ideas: Require manufacturers to identify the sources of their palm oil in order to provide accountability.
In the United States, a few food manufacturers -- Spectrum Organics and Newman's Own Organics, to name two -- have sought environmentally sound sources.
Eating Well magazine lists these steps consumers can take to help solve the problem:
¡¤  Ask food and cosmetics manufacturers to switch to certified sustainable palm oil.
¡¤  Buy certified organic products that cannot contain palm oil from unknown sources.
¡¤  Support a conservation group active in rain forest protection efforts.
Definitions: Many people are confused about the difference between palm oil and palm kernel oil. Eating Well magazine explains: While both come from palm trees, palm oil is extracted from the palm fruit; palm kernel oil comes from the palm seed. More than 80 percent of the fat in palm kernel oil is saturated, only 50 percent of palm oil is.
Palm oil's reddish-golden color indicates that it also contains heart-healthy carotenoids.
Food Editor Patricia Mack can be reached at The Record, 150 River St., Hackensack, NJ 07601; by voice mail, (201) 646-4351; by fax, (201) 457-2511; or by e-mail, 

Michelle Desilets
"Primates Helping Primates"

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