During the 2016 US presidential election, the term ‘fake news’ gained popularity. In essence, the discourse centred on news articles, especially those frequently shared on popular social media websites, that arguably provided biased or even false information regarding the candidates, and may have even contributed to determining voters’ choices.
However, the concept of ‘fake news’ is not new to the palm oil industry which is regularly confronted by articles that use incomplete or manipulated data; which are regularly supported by competitors to distort trade; and which create fear among consumers against consuming palm oil.
In particular, large corporations that cultivate oil palm and retailers that sell goods containing palm oil are regularly shamed by the media, as well as by dedicated organisations and websites. Oil palm cultivation is, for example, is blamed as the one and only source of all deforestation and biodiversity loss, and as being wholly unsustainable.
There have certainly been cases of unsustainable business practices within the whole spectrum of the vegetable oil, cattle and forestry industries. However, the palm oil industry has made unmatched efforts to improve its production processes and procedures over the past decades, including signing up to global and/or national sustainability standards. This is seldom highlighted.
The reality is simply manipulated through ‘fake news’ that take occurrences out of context or place all the blame on oil palm cultivation, without objectively factoring-in all the sustainable features of this industry; particularly if compared with competing vegetable oils in terms of the yield per hectare, and the reduced use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, among other aspects of production.
Another way in which palm oil is attacked is from the nutritional and health angles. In early 2016, when asked to prepare a scientific and technical report on the possible toxicity of palm oil as a food ingredient, the Directorate General of Food Hygiene and Nutrition of Italy’s Ministry of Health found that palm oil was no worse than butter in terms of consumption of saturated fats. Plus, it is a good source of Vitamin E and does not require hydrogenation to become solid. In other vegetable oils, hydrogenation produces trans fats, which are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems.
Similarly, a rash of news stories emerged in May 2016 posing the question as to whether palm oil causes cancer. The reports appear to have originated from the misinterpretation of an opinion published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which found that certain process contaminants in vegetable oils, margarines and processed foods may raise potential health concerns, including an increased risk of cancer. Again, the stories improperly singled out palm oil, while failing to tell the whole story.
After studying process contaminants, which are chemical substances produced during food processing, the EFSA found that substantial quantities of such contaminants are present in many oils – including maize, olive, peanut, soybean, sunflower, walnut, coconut and palm oils.
Regardless, the palm oil industry has been aware of this matter and has taken considerable steps to mitigate the presence of process contaminants. The EFSA, in its opinion, recognised these efforts, noting that their levels were halved from 2010 to 2015.
A German consumer organisation conducted independent testing, finding that other vegetable oils actually contained higher levels of process contaminants in certain chocolate spreads. Reportedly, when oil palm fruit is harvested at the correct time, pressed quickly and processed at the appropriate temperature, it results in insignificant levels of contaminants, if any at all.