Healthier Food Could Have A Major Downside

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Many American foods are about to get healthier thanks to a ban on trans fat. But, our longer, healthier lives will still take a toll on the environment. Producing palm oil — the most likely replacement for the processed oils that cook our french fries and make our biscuits flaky — is often done in harsh labor conditions that involve destroying rainforests.

On Tuesday, the FDA released a decision that will require companies to phase out trans fats by June 2018, according to Bloomberg; the decision comes after it became impossible to ignore the connection between diets high in trans fats and high cholesterol, which raises risks for heart disease and strokes, two top causes of death in the U.S. This change has been hailed as a major public health victory.

There are two things that make this decision and its consequences less exciting than they seem: first, palm oil still has saturated fat, which means it’s an improvement over the processed oils it's replacing, but not as good as some vegetable oils, which have more unsaturated fat.

Second, as experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists explain in a recent report, palm oil plantations are often located on land where rainforests have been clear-cut or wetlands that have been drained to make room for arable land. Deforestation increases the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which studies show contribute to global warming.

“In Indonesia and Malaysia, growth in palm oil production has been the single biggest driver of deforestation,” Alex Morgan, director of markets transformation at the Rainforest Alliance told us. And, that’s only one component. “There are a number of other issues: [such as] treatment of indigenous communities. Many landowners’ rights have been taken away by large companies through manipulation and there’s a fair amount of chemicals used in growing palm trees."

Earlier this week, French environmental minister Ségolène Royal encouraged people to stop eating Nutella as one way to fight climate change. “We have to replant a lot of trees because there is massive deforestation that also leads to global warming. We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it’s made with palm oil,” she said in a French television interview, according to the Guardian. “Oil palms have replaced trees, and therefore caused considerable damage to the environment.”

Unlike many seemingly insurmountable environmental challenges, there are ways to make sure you’re buying products from brands that think about how their products are made. Morgan told us that the Rainforest Alliance keeps track of companies that meet their standards for sustainable palm oil production and the Union of Concerned Scientists tracks who has been keeping their own promises.

Only a handful — including Safeway, Kellogg’s, and L’Oreal — are living up to their commitments so far, and there aren’t enough sustainable farms to keep up with an explosion in American demand for palm oil. But, Morgan says, there’s reason to be optimistic. “I’m definitely encouraged,” he said. “We’re seeing a growing focus on sustainable production across the board. There’s a growing understanding in companies of the need to practice more sustainable agriculture, improve productivity, and protect environment.”

If you want to know if your favorite foods or face washes are sustainable products, you can check with companies directly, search the Rainforest Alliance's Shop the Frog site, or check out the UCSUSA's yearly scorecard.
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