Tropical Dilemma

March 2023 - Community & Environment

Is it Ethical to Buy Red Palm Fruit Oil or Coconut Oil?

Twenty years ago, most people believed that saturated fats were a cause of life threatening health problems like heart disease and stroke. People were advised to avoid saturated fats at all costs – in fact, most people were told to refrain from eating any fat at all. Today, it has become clear that some fats are actually beneficial for reducing heart disease and stroke. Polyunsaturated fats like those found in nuts, avocados, fish, and olive oil are now recommended by doctors as methods for lowering bad LDL cholesterol. Although unsaturated fats have been cleared for consumption, there is still some debate regarding saturated fats found in items like coconut oil and red palm oil. Both of these tropical oils have wide reaching health benefits, including their ability to lower LDL cholesterol levels, protect against heart attack and stroke, maintain good blood pressure and circulation, protect against cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, and liver disease, and fight mental degeneration related to Alzheimer’s disease. With a resume like that, it seems like people would be consuming these oils by the tub-full. And while tropical oils like red palm fruit oil and coconut oil are gaining popularity in North America as a result of their extensive healthful properties, there are environmental concerns that may mean buying these oils may not be ethical or sustainable.

Red Palm Fruit Oil

Red palm fruit oil has been a staple of indigenous people in Africa for over 5,000 years. In fact, the oil was revered by tropical cultures for its healing properties. It is derived from the fruit of oil palms and varies in shades from red to white. Virgin red palm fruit oil is an orange red colour, whereas more processed versions are pale yellow or translucent. Virgin red palm fruit oil contains the highest concentration of vitamin A found in nature. It is this concentration of alpha and beta carotenes that gives red palm fruit its colour. Virgin oil is also an excellent source of phytonutrients, antioxidants, co-enzyme Q10, and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. As the oil is processed it loses its nutrient values and as a result, its red colour.
It is important to note the difference between red palm fruit oil and palm kernel oil. The former is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, whereas palm kernel oil is taken from the tree’s seeds. Palm kernel oil is one of the most commonly used oils worldwide, second only to soybean oil. In addition to its popularity as a culinary oil and for use in cosmetics and body care products, palm kernel oil has also been used as bio diesel. Unlike red palm fruit oil, palm kernel oil does not contain high amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, and phytonutrients.

Sustainability Concerns
There are three main concerns surrounding the production of red palm fruit oil and palm kernel oil: the deforestation of the rainforest, the destruction of orangutan habitats, and the food versus fuel debate. Stationed in areas of Africa, South East Asia, and tropical regions of South America, there is great concern that the palm oil industry is destroying rainforests and degrading animal habitats. South Asian palm oil farms are clearing large portions of the rainforest in order to plant hectares of oil palms. The high demand of palm kernel oil and the promise of great profits have driven many companies to the palm oil business. With the bottom line in mind, sustainability and environmental protection has taken a backseat to wealth. While palm kernel oil is in far greater demand than red palm fruit oil, there is still valid environmental concerns that arise as a result of any oil palm farming.

Safe Choices
Although there is a prevailing view that all palm oil should be avoided due to environmental concerns, there are some companies that are growing oil palms in a sustainable manner. While buying red palm fruit oil is certainly not supporting local, it can mean supporting fair trade and developing economies. Nutiva produces red palm fruit oil that is grown on organic, family farms in northwest Ecuador. Nutiva also has created social programs in the area by building a small clinic for the local doctor and hiring a full time soccer coach and providing uniforms for youth teams.

To address concerns of deforestation and destruction of orangutan habitats, a Swiss company formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004. The RSPO certifies farmers’ processes and practices to ensure sustainability. Alpha Health, a local company in British Columbia, Canada, markets red palm fruit oil that has been certified by the RSPO for its environmental commitment. Even though Nutiva red palm fruit oil is grown and produced in Ecuador, a region that is not native for orangutans, the company ensures that they have minimal environmental impact by limiting farm size to approximately 25 acres. These farms are interspersed throughout regional forests which also encourage natural plant and animal growth.

Without question, consumers should be extremely careful when choosing to buy red palm fruit oil. By purchasing a product that is certified by the RSPO or that clearly states its growing and production processes, consumers can be sure that they are choosing a sustainable option that does not contribute to environmental destruction.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil comes from a different species of palm tree than red palm fruit oil. Coconut oil is derived from the flesh of mature coconuts, the fruit of the Cocos nucifera palm tree, whereas red palm oil is taken from the red fruit of the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis. Worldwide, coconut oil is quickly becoming recognized as an extremely versatile superfood. With benefits ranging from weight loss, to brain function, to cosmetic cure-all, the demand for coconut oil continues to rise.

Sustainability Concerns
Coconut trees live and produce fruit for up to 60 years. They are nicknamed the “third generation tree” because farmers from multiple generations are able to harvest coconuts from the same trees. Coco palms are heartier than their oil palm cousins and are able to grow in sandy, nutrient-lacking soil. As a result, it is not necessary to level large areas of rainforest in effort to find acceptable growing conditions. In fact, many coconut palm farms were previously sugar cane farms that have been transitioned as the demand for coconut products increases. Further, Greenpeace recognizes that most coconut palm farms are owned by small scale growers. While this is the case now, there is concern that large corporate investors will be aware of the coconut oil trend and change family farms into large plantations, similar to what currently exists in the oil palm industry. Most environmental agencies agree that coconut palms are a wonder crop, extremely sustainable, long lasting, and low maintenance. Coconut trees are left to produce fruit year after year, as opposed to oil palms that are often harvested using the slash and burn technique. That being said, there is caution given to introducing coconut palms to different ecosystems as their presence in non-native zones can result in the loss of a number of different bird species.

Safe Choices
Unfortunately there are no local choices for coconut oil, but there are fair trade and organic options that are grown and produced by sustainable companies. Maison Orphée, a company from Quebec, produces a high quality virgin coconut oil made from organic coconuts. The oil is sourced from the Philippines and is ECOCERT fair trade certified. Artisana Foods offers a raw, organic coconut oil sourced from South Asia. The company is partnered with the Rainforest Alliance, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Cornucopia Group, all of which are agencies that are working towards creating agricultural reform in high risk areas. 

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