Palm oil predicament

It’s been two long weeks since my last post -- I, delightfully, was traveling in Costa Rica (lucky me), experiencing pristine, monkey-infested rainforests, sea turtle-frequented beaches, and … palm oil plantations. You may not think of the world’s eco-escape mecca as being home to sprawling palm oil plantations, but it’s a sad fact: much of Costa Rica’s gorgeous lowland rainforests have been cleared to make way for huge groves of massive African palms.

The land now occupied by rows upon rows of palms were once home to hugely biodiverse forests that housed monkeys, sloths, macaws, etc. In the early 1900s, the United Fruit Company cleared the jungle to plant bananas, which eventually gave way to the hardier, more cost effective palm oil plantations. African palms—which are often genetically engineered so that they won’t grow too tall for harvesters—produce giant pods of orange kernels which are pressed for their rich oil. The oil is then shipped around the world, where it is used in everything from cosmetics to soaps to packaged foods. And the demand is growing as manufacturers searching for trans fat-free ways to keep the flavor in your favorite chocolate bars increasingly turn to this highly saturated fat.

So what’s the problem? Deforestation to make way for plantations in developing countries such as Borneo lead to dwindling habitats for endangered species like orangutans, or, in Costa Rica, the super cute mono titi (squirrel monkey). While we saw an incredible array of insects, birdlife, and animals in Costa Rica’s forests, to wit, the dark, dense palm plantations were spookily quiet and seemingly devoid of life.

On the health side, the Center for Science in the Public Interest says that because palm oil is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, it is a detrimental alternative to canola, soy, and olive oils.

So how can we avoid making the problem worse? First of all, when you can, avoid products that list palm oil in their ingredients list (this is harder than you would expect) and, as tasty as they are, be weary of hearts of palm — especially from geographic areas, such as Brazil, where rainforests are being decimated at alarming rates. The can will indicate the country of origin.

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