Red palm oil is everywhere…and that’s a problem

The “natural know it all” nutraceutical industry features a constantly rotating cast of supposed celebrity “superstars.” It seems as soon as one company starts seeing profits with a “new” ingredient, every other supplement manufacturer jumps right on the bandwagon. Don’t be fooled, these guys never discover anything really new, and these ingredients have been around for a long time and already well-known to real science.

One of the current starlets is red palm oil. You can find it as a headliner in everything from vitamin supplements to foods and even soaps. The reason it’s so popular is that it’s a potent source of vitamin A and it grows with its own oil base, which aids absorption.

On the one hand, this development could be a good thing. Worldwide, more than 250 million children under the age of 5 years are at risk for vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency during childhood is the leading cause of avoidable blindness. It can also be fatal. So red palm oil, an efficient and cost-effective source of vitamin A, has the potential to be a real game-changer in global regions where deficiency is a problem.

On the other hand, this surge in popularity means a huge—and unsustainable—increase in demand. It means that territory throughout Southeast Asia, where red palm can grow naturally is being clear-cut to make room for more red palm plantations.

These plantations are displacing both humans and animals from their natural habitats. Palm oil cultivation is nothing new. When I took the Silver Crescent train from Singapore to Bangkok in 1976, the whole length of the Malay peninsula was lined with mile after mile of palm oil plantations. Then, in 1984, while working for NCI at USDA I brought some red palm oil from Senegal (formerly French West Africa) and it tested for very high levels of pre-vitamin A carotenoids.

But conservationists warn that the recent surge in interest in red palm oil has led to an increase in environmentally dangerous practices. They are calling for consumers and industry to use only sustainably grown red palm oil. Before you buy products containing this “nutritional celebrity,” visit the World Wildlife Fund’s 2013 scorecard to see which companies are sourcing it responsibly.

But there are plenty of other sources of vitamin A available in the west, and you should leave the red palm oil to the pregnant or nursing mother, or child, in Africa. Instead make sure you are taking a high-quality fish oil, and use olive oil in your diet. Nuts also provide plenty of healthy oils and essential fatty acids, as well as minerals, as well as other health benefits. And there’s no need to clear-cut faraway forests to get them.