Fat Science: Cocos de aceite

Once when I was at the beach in Mexico we ate these cocos de aceite, oil coconuts, that we found on the sand. They’re much smaller than regular coconuts. They fit in the palm of your hand. And you can peel them with your teeth and get into the coconut meat easily and they are sooooo good. Lo mas delicioso que jamas haya probado. That was many years ago and I have not had that pleasure ever since.

But now, after reading an article in The Guardian, I’ve learned some more about palm oil, the product of cocos de aceite. The oil palm yields the most oil per acre of any oil seed and so palm oil is also the cheapest to produce. This has lead the world to become as addicted to palm oil as I would be to cocos de aceite if I could find them. Besides in food, seventy percent of personal care items, soaps, shampoos, creams…, contain one or more palm oil derivative. A similar thirst for palm oil has happened with the trend towards biofuels to replace petro fuels.

As it has become a world wide staple commodity the biggest problem with palm oil is the destruction of Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos and orangutans that it is killing as forests are burned down to make palm oil farms – driving them towards extinction in their only habitats in Indonesia and Malaysia which nations are responsible for 85% of world production of palm oil.

However, it is not impossible to produce palm oil sustainably, and several organizations certify sustainable producers. Furthermore replacing palm with other oils will only accelerate deforestation, since none of its competitors can give anywhere near its yield per unit of land: palm accounts for 6.6% of cultivated land for oils and fats, while delivering 38.7% of the output, according to the European Palm Oil Alliance, an industry group. The palm oil tree is perennial and evergreen, enabling year-round production. It is exceptionally efficient at photosynthesis for a perennial tree, and requires less preparation of the soil than other sources of vegetable oils. It can succeed in soils that can’t sustain other crops. And since it gives the highest yield per acre of any oil seed crop – almost five times as much oil per acre as rapeseed, almost six times as much as sunflower and more than eight times as much as soybeans, boycotts of palm oil would only lead to its replacement by other crops needing far more farmland and likely more deforestation.

We are probably not going to stop using ever more palm oil. But I digress. The real question for fat scientists is, is it better to eat palm oil?