Dr. Andrew Weil: Conflict Palm Oil Bad for People and Planet

Top trans-fat replacement still clogs arteries, plus causes deforestation and child labor

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – With the FDA widely expected to announce a ban on trans-fats within the year, America’s sweets and snacks makers are rushing to eliminate the offending ingredients from their products. But the primary replacement they’re turning to most – palm oil – isn’t much better for people’s health, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, America’s leading expert in integrative medicine. What’s more, most of the palm oil found in America’s food supply, dubbed ‘Conflict Palm Oil,’ is produced in ways that cause large scale rainforest destruction and human rights abuses.

“Fresh palm fruit oil, sometimes called ‘red palm oil,’ is a nutritious and beneficial oil. However, it’s important not to confuse this raw oil with palm kernel oil, or the highly processed versions of crude palm oil that are commonly used as ingredients in the industrially-produced packaged foods found in most Americans’ diets,” says Dr. Weil. “These types of palm oil are unhealthy for the human body. And their irresponsible cultivation in tropical areas is unhealthy for the planet.”

Found in roughly half of the packaged goods in American grocery stores, palm oil goes by many names, including Palm Kernel Oil, Palmitate, and Glyceryl Stearate. The FDA is accepting comments until March 8 on a measure to further reduce trans-fats in processed foods, after a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food.

In anticipation of an eventual FDA ruling that trans-fats be eliminated from the food supply altogether, America’s snack makers are scrambling for a replacement. Conflict Palm Oil tops the list. This won’t be the first time a decision on trans fats has impacted the consumption of palm oil in North America. In 2006 the FDA began requiring the listing of amounts of trans fats on food product ingredient labels. Trans fat usage declined, and the use of controversial palm oil skyrocketed over 500 percent in less than a decade. It can now be found in roughly 50 percent of packaged foods sold in grocery stores.

Dr. Weil joins a chorus of voices expressing concern that, when it comes to replacing trans-fats, we may be jumping out of the frying pan and into the deep fryer. The World Health Organization; the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service all recommend against consuming palm oil and other tropical oils because of their high content of artery-clogging saturated fats.

Experts say that eating saturated fats, as well as trans fats, raises levels of low-density lipoprotein, also known as “bad” cholesterol – and increases the risk of heart disease. Katie Ferraro, a registered dietitian and an assistant clinical professor at UCSF, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “You would never call palm oil heart-healthy, even though it’s trans-fat-free.”

Beyond the health issue, environmentalists and human rights activists are concerned that the FDA ban on transfats will lead to a further increase in demand for Conflict Palm Oil. RAN’s Conflict Palm Oil campaign is designed to pressure the Snack Food 20* group of companies to eliminate Conflict Palm Oil from their products and demand only truly responsible palm oil from their suppliers.

“We are pleased to see the FDA taking steps to eliminate an ingredient from our food supply that is unhealthy for people. But replacing trans fats with Conflict Palm Oil won’t do much for people’s health and will cause dire consequences for the planet,” says Gemma Tillack, Senior Agribusiness Campaigner for Rainforest Action Network. “Not one of the nation’s top 20 snack food manufacturers can verifiably ensure that their products do not contain Conflict Palm Oil connected to human rights abuses, land grabs, and rainforest destruction.”

More than 85% of the palm oil in America’s packaged food is grown on palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia where human rights abuses are common and widespread. The US Department of Labor lists palm oil as a commodity known to be associated with child labor and forced labor. A nine-month investigation by the Schuster Institute of Investigative Journalism published in BusinessWeek last July documented widespread cases of child labor on palm oil plantations associated with the supply chains of the Snack Food 20 targeted by RAN.

Besides its atrocious and well-documented human rights violations, Conflict Palm Oil production is one of the world’s leading causes of rainforest destruction, and is driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. Annual carbon emissions related to deforestation in Indonesia alone – most of which stem from palm oil plantation expansion – are greater than all the cars, trucks, planes and ships in the United States combined.

For more information see RAN’s Conflict Palm Oil report.

*The “Snack Food 20” group of companies are Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods, Inc.; Dunkin’ Brands Group, Inc.; General Mills, Inc.; Grupo Bimbo; Hillshire Brands Company; H.J. Heinz Company; Hormel Foods Corporation; Kellogg Company; Kraft Food Group, Inc.; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Corp.; Mars Inc.; Mondelez International, Inc.; Nestle. S.A.; Nissin Foods Holdings Co., Ltd.; PepsiCo, Inc.; The Hershey Company; The J.M. Smucker Company; Toyo Suisan Kaisha, Ltd.; and Unilever.