Palm Oil Quiz Donuts, Detergent and Diesel

It is found in chocolate, soap and biofuel: Palm oil is ubiquitous. Why is it so popular? And are there alternatives? Test your knowledge!
Palm oil plantation in Guatemala

Palm oil plantation in Guatemala

Foto: Rodrigo Abd / AP

Global consumption of palm oil has more than quadrupled in the last 20 years. Germany alone uses 1.82 million tons of it each year for foodstuffs, cosmetics and energy production.

The high demand for palm oil is primarily the result of its low production costs. Because of its productive fruits, palm oil yields are roughly five times higher than they are for rapeseed, sunflowers or soy. In addition, palm oil has properties that are advantageous for some products: It remains solid at room temperature and does not oxidize. Chocolate made with palm oil, for example, stays fresh longer and has a creamier consistency.

What's more, the fatty acid composition of palm oil is particularly favorable for use in cleaning products, cosmetics and chemical products. Other vegetable oils first must be processed, which is expensive and energy intensive.

But palm oil use has plenty of negative side-effects: It's cultivation can result in significant damage to the environment. In Southeast Asia alone, around 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) of rain forest have been destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations. Threatened species like the orangutan or the elephant, for example, are suffering from a severe loss of habitat. In addition, peatlands are also cleared in the process, releasing vast amounts of CO2.

Are there potential solutions for these problems? In many products, palm oil could be replaced with locally produced vegetable oil. Cultivation would also require the establishment of new farmland, but the damage to the environment would be less than it is in the rain forest. Furthermore, rapeseed in particular can easily be integrated into existing planting cycles.

Will all of Germany become one big rapeseed field?

For now, such calculations will remain hypothetical because palm oil is unbeatably affordable. Furthermore, because of its particularly high heat resistance, it can only really be replaced in half of its applications.

It could be replaced with other oils in the production of margarine, for example, which is among the products that uses the most palm oil. Oil from other sources such as rapeseed, sunflower seeds or olives is generally shunned for reasons of cost. It would also be possible to switch to locally produced oil in the production of bread, baked goods, chips and ice cream.

Most palm oil used in Germany, though, doesn't go to the production of foodstuffs, but as an admixture for biodiesel. "Current palm oil use in Germany could be cut by around 50 percent if we stop using palm oil in biofuels and are more conscientious in our food consumption," says the WWF. And their wish may soon come true: The European Union is currently creating regulations aimed at eliminating the admixture of plant-based oil that relies on deforestation for its production - such as palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia - by 2020.

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