Palm Oil is a staple ingredient in the regions where it’s native. It’s also an extremely controversial ingredient outside of those regions…
Palm Oil (along with a few other ingredients I’ll talk about in future posts) is one of those quintessentially West African flavours. It has a rich, earthy and slightly nutty taste, adding serious depth to any pot of stew, beans or pottage, even elevating a humbly boiled yam (another star ingredient in it’s own right!) with it’s complex aromas
It’s bright red colour (which threatens to stain any tupperware it comes into contact with) comes from the high concentration of beta carotenes and lycopenes, these are the powerful antioxidants that have been said to improve cognition, prevent cancer, maintain eye sight and improve heart health. However this vegetable oil, similarly to coconut oil, contains high levels of saturated fat and when consumed in excess can harm cardiovascular health.
In a process taking several days tappers climb incredible heights to release the palm fruits which are left to ripen until the palm fruit nuts can easily be dislodged from their husks. The nuts are cooked until soft, then pressed underfoot and rinsed to draw out the oil. In this way it is sustainable both environmentally and economically.
Here are some dishes where Palm Oil really shines:
Derived from the the African Oil Palm (Elaeis Guineensis), it is often farmed and processed on a small scale local level by smallholders.
Moving further along the equator, the oil palm tree was introduced to Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here palm oil is farmed on an industrical scale on vast plantations with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand taking first, second and third place respectively as the world’s largest palm oil producers. This process has a huge environmental impact.
The oil is so cheap and the demand so high that acres of forestland are being cut down to meet demands. On this industrial scale, human tappers no longer suffice, trees are simply cut down for the fruit to be harvested and the forests burned down to clear land for the whole process to start again, in spite of laws to protect against this. This also leads to a loss of habitat for local wildlife often resulting in death. You are probably aware of the critically endangered status of orangutans but the palm oil industry also affects tigers, elephants and rhinos.
It is refined into an odorless, colourless oil that is widely used in all manner of products from soaps and shampoos, to peanut butter and frozen pizza. However, Palm Oil’s biggest use is nowhere it can been seen or tasted (such a waste!), it is as a source of bio fuel.
In 2009 the EU passed ‘The Renewable Energy Directive’ leading to a increase in the use of palm oil as an energy source. In 2008 prior to this law being passed, biodiesel was responsible for less than 30% of all EU Palm Oil use, in 2017 8 years into ‘The Renewable Energy Directive’ biodiesel was responsible for over half of all EU Palm Oil use.
It seems that, as is often the case, this environmental issue as very economic roots and this will likely be the case as long as Palm Oil remains a cheap, mass-produced commodity. The issues around Palm Oil are unlikely to be solved by any one method, rather a more holistic approach is needed. In fact now that companies are finding it harder to aquire Asian land for Oil Palm plantations, they are looking to Africa leading to violent land grabs in many countries.
I adore the deep flavours that Palm Oil brings to a dish, flavours that simply cannot be supplemented with any other ingredient. A blend of smokiness, earthiness and umami, it’s unlike anything else. So it pains me to see it demonised and villified as the cause of our planet’s demise. In the land’s where it is native, this is an artisanal product that takes extensive skill and intensive labour to be produced and processed, and so should be valued as such.