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Coconut oil actually threatens more species than palm oil, study shows

Coconut oil production could be more damaging for the environment than previously thought, worsening already-high extinction rates in tropical forests. According to a new study, coconut oil may actually be worse than palm oil, whose production is widely regarded as extremely harmful to the environment.

Credit Flickr

Researchers from the University of Exeter found that coconuts affect 20 threatened species per million liters of oil produced, while palm oil only affects 3.8 species per million liters. Globally, coconut farms occupy 12.3 million hectares (30.4 million acres) of land, about two-thirds the area of oil palm plantations.

A growing number of consumers have put the spotlight on the environmental impact of vegetable oils, with palm oil being particularly damaging due to the amount of land needed to be cleared to make way for the crop. But consumers are less aware of the impact of farming coconuts, the study argued.

“The outcome of our study came as a surprise,” said lead author Erik Meijaard, of Borneo Futures in Brunei Darussalam. “Many consumers in the West think of coconut products as both healthy and their production relatively harmless for the environment. As it turns out, we need to think again about the impacts of coconut.”

Coconut is mainly grown by smallholder farmers on tropical islands in Indonesia and the Philippines, which have rich biodiversity and unique species, the study showed. On a global scale, coconut farms take much less space than other oil crops but affect more than 60 species in IUCN’s Red List.

Scientists believe coconut crops have driven many island species to extinction, including the Marianne white-eye in the Seychelles (Zosterops semiflavus) and the Ontong Java flying fox (Pteropus howensis) in the Solomon Islands, which hasn’t been seen for the last 42 years and is considered extinct.

While the study focuses on coconut, it highlights that other oil crops, such as olive, soy, and rapeseed, can also have serious environmental issues attached to them. For example, it references a piece in Nature that says high-powered machines used to harvest olives kill 2.6 million birds each year in Spanish Andalucía.

“The production of olive oil, however, rarely raises concerns among consumers and environmentalists,” the researchers wrote. “There are various perceptions at play — the olive oil industry benefits from the belief that it represents a sustainable practice with an extensive heritage and mythology, claims of health benefits and being locally based.”

The findings show how hard it can be for consumers to make environmentally conscientious spending choices. Many turn to dairy-free substitutes, such as coconut milk, with a greener environmental image. But without real guidance on the environmental impact of crops, it’s quite difficult to make an informed decision.

The palm oil industry is dealing with its environmental impacts with the help of initiatives, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. But there aren’t any similar initiatives for coconut oil production. The study focused on the biodiversity impact of vegetable oils and did not address the impact on greenhouse gases, which could be quite different for each source.

Coconut is a popular product on a global scale, mostly used for oil but also for copra, milk, and water. Its production affects a high number of species but the authors emphasize that the objective of the study is not to add coconut to the growing list of products that consumers should avoid.

“Consumers need to realize that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impacts,” said in a statement co-author Professor Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. “We need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices.”

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

Palm oil’s emissions mainly come from getting the land ready

Obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree, the use of palm oil has dramatically increased in recent years, and it is now the world’s most widely consumed and traded vegetable oil. But this has come at a cost: the clearing of land for more crops and the release of a growing amount of emissions to the atmosphere.

A palm oil site in Malaysia. Credit: Stephanie Evers

New research has looked at the greenhouse gas emissions released from palm oil plantations and found that getting the land ready and growing young plants is much more damaging for the environment than mature plantations, releasing twice the amount of greenhouse gas.

The study, published in Nature Communications, was performed by plant experts from the University of Nottingham working in Malaysia. They analyzed five sites with four different stages of land use, including secondary forest, uncleared forest, cleared forest, and mature plantations.

The team looked at soil and gas samples from the sites and concluded that the largest amount of emissions was released during the first stages of the crop development – 50% higher than the emissions released during the mature stage of the crops analyzed.

Tropical peat swamp forests, like the one in which the research was carried out, hold 20% of the global peatland carbon. Nevertheless, that amount of carbon could soon be released to the atmosphere because of the expansion of agriculture, mainly for oil palm and pulpwood.

Farmers drain the peatlands, which increases the amount of oxygen in the soil. This leads to a higher rate of decomposition of the organic material, which causes higher emissions from the drained peatlands. It’s not only carbon dioxide but also other gases such as CH4 and N208 that are released to the atmosphere.

“Tropical peat swamps have historically been avoided by palm oil growers due to the amount of preparation and drainage the land needs, but as land becomes more scarce there has been an increased demand to convert sites and the periphery of North Selangor is being heavily encroached upon by palm oil plantations,” said Dr. Sofie Sjogersten, co-author of the study.

Key facts about palm oil

Close to 50% of the packaged products in supermarkets now use palm oil, according to WWF, ranging from pizza to deodorant. It’s also used in animal feed and biofuels, showing a high versatility due to its properties. It’s resistant to oxidation, odorless, colorless, and stable at high temperatures.

Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation in some of the most biodiverse forests of the world, affecting the habitat of endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger. The deforestation leads to the peat soils reach with carbon being converted into greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions due to palm oil in Indonesia represented between 2% and 9% of all tropical land-use emissions from 2000 to 2010. Indonesia is the seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, with deforestation accounting for 30% of those emissions. The country has already unveiled plans to double its palm oil production.

What are the healthiest oils to cook with? An explainer

The shelf of the cooking-oil section of supermarkets has recently become a crowded spot, with an abundance of options to choose from. But this means it can be tricky to know which is the healthiest one, starting from the healthful olive oil to the more controversial palm and grapeseed oils.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

To help select some of the healthiest, here’s a rundown of the most used ones across the world. Some oils have been well studied for their health benefits, while others have too little research from which to draw firm conclusions about their effects on heart health.

Since there are so many cooking oils across the world, it would be impossible to look at all of them, so we will only look at some of the most popular ones, seeing which are healthy and which not.

Olive oil

Used for cooking but also for soaps and fuel, olive oil is a vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the Olive tree, a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin. It is regarded as a healthful dietary oil because of its high content of monounsaturated fat and polyphenols.

Buying the right kind of olive oil is very important. Extra virgin olive oil retains some of the antioxidants and bioactive compounds from olives. For this reason, it’s considered healthier than the more refined variety of olive oil. Even so, there is a lot of fraud on the olive oil market.

About 14% of the oil is saturated fat, whereas 11% is polyunsaturated, such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.  But the predominant fatty acid in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, making up 73% of the total oil content. Studies suggest that oleic acid reduces inflammation and may even have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer.

Apart from its beneficial fatty acids, it contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K. But olive oil is also loaded with powerful antioxidants. These antioxidants are biologically active and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases. They also fight inflammation and help protect blood cholesterol from oxidation — two benefits that may lower your risk of heart disease.

Extra-virgin olive oil can reduce inflammation, which may be one of the main reasons for its health benefits. The main anti-inflammatory effects are mediated by the antioxidants. Key among them is oleocanthal, which has been shown to work similarly to ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug. Olive oil has also been found to be slightly better for the liver, in a recent study.

Sunflower oil 

Sunflower oil is a non-volatile oil that can be easily extracted from sunflowers. Although most people are already familiar with sunflowers, they don’t immediately think of sunflowers as sources of extremely healthy vegetable oil that can replace some of the less healthy cooking oils available on the market.

Sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E, vitamin K, phytosterols, and monosaturated fatty acids. One of the primary reasons for its growing popularity is its impressive fatty acid content, which includes palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, lecithin, carotenoids, selenium, and linoleic acid. The combination of fatty acids in the body is extremely important to maintain various elements of human health.

At the same time, some of those fatty acids, as well as vitamin E and other organic compounds, act as antioxidants in sunflower oil, which means that they can positively affect a huge range of conditions that people regularly suffer from. It also has more polyunsaturated fats than any other commonly used vegetable oil.

Three common grades of sunflower oil are available, and each varies in its nutritional content. High-oleic oil is from sunflowers bred to have a high concentration of oleic acid in their seeds. Mid-oleic is the oil that’s used for stir-frying and in salad dressings, while linoleic is formed by more polyunsaturated omega-6 fats but is lacking in healthy omega-3s.

Coconut oil

Unlike other plant-based oils, coconut oil is primarily saturated fat. Not everyone agrees that such a concentrated source of saturated fat is a no-go for health, but some experts, including the American Heart Association, argue that replacing foods that are high in saturated fat with healthier options can lower blood cholesterol levels and improve lipid profiles.

Made from the fruit of the coconut palm tree, coconut oil has been promoted as a better alternative to butter. Nevertheless, there’s little scientific evidence of that. It is a white solid at room temperature with a consistency resembling that of butter or shortening rather than liquid oil.

Interestingly, however, a study comparing the use of coconut oil vs sunflower oil found no difference in the lipid-related cardiovascular risk factors between the two oils.

Palm oil

Palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of oil palms. The main source of palm oil is the Elaeis guineensis tree, which is native to West and Southwest Africa. Its use in this region dates back more than 5,000 years. In recent years, oil palm growth has expanded to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Palm oil is one of the least expensive and most popular oils worldwide, accounting for one-third of global plant oil production. It is an excellent source of tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E with strong antioxidant properties that may support brain health. It also has been linked to protection against heart disease, but with mixed results so far. Furthermore, although it is high in saturated fats, a Harvard study found that “Palm oil has been scientifically shown to protect the heart and blood vessels from plaques and ischemic injuries” and that “Palm oil consumed as a dietary fat as a part of a healthy balanced diet does not have incremental risk for cardiovascular disease.” 

However, while palm oil doesn’t really deserve all the negative reputation it gets (here’s why), it shouldn’t really be your first choice against other vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature. Furthermore, because it is so cheap and robust, palm oil is used extensively in many processed foods, which should absolutely be avoided. The “healthy balanced diet” part in the above-mentioned study is a crucial aspect.

Furthermore, there are also several ethical issues regarding palm oil production’s effects on the environment, wildlife and communities. The increase in production due to the growing demand has led to the destruction of tropical forests and peatland in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. A recent study has also likened the palm oil industry lobby to that of the alcohol and tobacco industry due to its negative impact

Grapeseed oil

Grapeseed oil comes from the pressed seeds of grapes, making it a by-product of wine manufacturing. The health claims around it are based on its supposedly high amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fats.

It’s very high in polyunsaturated fats, mainly omega-6. Scientists have speculated that a high intake of omega-6 fats, relative to omega-3s, may increase inflammation in the body. It also contains a significant amount of Vitamin E. However, calorie for calorie, it is not an impressive source of Vitamin E.

Very few studies have investigated the effects of grapeseed oil on human health. It is usually advertised as a good choice for high-heat cooking like frying. However, this may be bad advice, as grapeseed oil is also high in polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fats tend to react with oxygen at high heat, forming harmful compounds.

Canola oil

Canola oil is derived from rapeseed, a flowering plant, and contains a good amount of monounsaturated fats and a decent amount of polyunsaturated fats. Of all vegetable oils, canola oil tends to have the least amount of saturated fats. It has a high smoke point, which means it can be helpful for high-heat cooking.

That being said, in the United States, canola oil tends to be highly processed, which means fewer nutrients overall. “Cold-pressed” or unprocessed canola oil is available, but it can be difficult to find. It is a versatile and practical cooking oil that’s not very expensive and can be used in a variety of ways.

Avocado oil

More expensive than other oils and harder to find, avocado oil has a mild flavor similar to avocado, and the oil can withstand high cooking temperatures, making it suitable for sautéing, grilling, roasting or using in salad dressings.

It is rich in monounsaturated fat and it has one of the highest levels of monounsaturated fat among cooking oils, second only to olive oil. Like olive oil, avocado oil is also low in polyunsaturated fats. Compared with other vegetable oils, avocado oil has a higher saturated fat content (20 percent), but this percentage is much smaller than the percentage of saturated fat in butter.

So, which should I use?

Sadly, this is not a straight forward answer. Each of the cooking oils has different characteristics, which will help decide which one to buy based on what and how you are cooking.

Overall, it is safe to say that olive and sunflower oil have science-proven benefits and perform somewhat better healthwise than most alternatives — but both have shortcomings. That can also apply to canola oil, but only the unprocessed one. Meanwhile, doubts remain regarding grapeseed, avocado and palm oils, with further research needed.

It’s important to note that the cooking method can also drastically influence the behavior of oils. Olive oil seems to be best-suited for uncooked foods (such as salads), closely followed by sunflower oil. Oils with high smoke points may be more stable than those with low smoke points, and one study found that again olive oil is possibly one of the most stable ones. However, olive oil does lose some of its edge when cooked at high temperatures.

At any rate, cooking oil should only be consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy and balanced diet, low in processed foods. Avoid deep frying whenever possible. Bon appétit!


Borneo has lost nearly 150,000 orangutans since 1999

The world’s largest orangutan species is quickly being vanquished by deforestation and hunting, a new study reports.

The Bornean orangutan is only found in Borneo, the third-largest island in the world. Split between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, it’s a biodiversity hotspot, with a rainforest estimated to be around 140 million years old. There are about 15,000 species of flowering plants and 3,000 species of trees, as well as 420 species of resident birds and 221 species of terrestrial mammals. Among them is the critically endangered orangutan.

The orangutan is highly intelligent, displaying tool use and distinct cultural patterns in the wild. In recent decades, however, they’ve been threatened more and more by deforestation, mainly for the production of palm oil. But the new study suggests that it’s not just palm oil — hunting is also threatening these orangutans.

“The decline in population density was most severe in areas that were deforested or transformed for industrial agriculture, as orangutans struggle to live outside forest areas,” says Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. “Worryingly, however, the largest number of orangutans were lost from areas that remained forested during the study period. This implies a large role of killing.” Orangutans are often hunted and sold as bushmeat.

Rainforest cover in 1973 (left) versus 2016 (right). Image credits: CIFOR.

Quantifying data on orangutans is not easy. In order to assess the population decline, Voigt and colleagues compiled years of field surveys, overlaying them on maps of estimated land-cover change over the same period. The monitoring of these changes was made possible by advancements in remote sensing technology.

It was a massive effort which involved researchers from 38 international institutions. In addition to the study, the data was also added to an interactive map which you can check out here.

“Our new study estimates that 76%, or 55.8 million hectares, of Borneo was old-growth rainforest in 1973. Old-growth forest ecosystems are intact and include many old (>500 years) closed-canopy evergreen trees.” the researchers write.

Most of the orangutan population has been destroyed. In total, researchers estimate that 148,500 Bornean orangutans have been lost in only 16 years, with only 70,000 to 100,000 animals left in the wild. To make matters even worse, 26 out of the 64 remaining populations have less than 100 individuals — the bare minimum for a population to be considered viable.

Yet not all is lost. Serge Wich from Liverpool John Moores University says that orangutans are much more resilient than anticipated. If we can leave them be, they can make a recovery.

“Orangutans are flexible and can survive to some extent in a mosaic of forests, plantations, and logged forest, but only when they are not killed,” Wich says. “So, in addition to protection of forests, we need to focus on addressing the underlying causes of orangutan killing. The latter requires public awareness and education, more effective law enforcement, and also more studies as to why people kill orangutans in the first place.”

The findings have been published in Current Biology.

Palm oil deforestation is slowly killing the Sumatran Tiger

Future generations may live in a world without the majestic Sumatran Tiger, as only two viable populations remain in the world, a new study reveals. Deforestation, especially for the palm oil industry, is the main culprit.

Things aren’t looking to good for the Sumatran Tiger. Image credits: Spencer Wright / Flickr.

Things were bad enough for Sumatran tigers. Scientists estimated that just 618 of them remain as of 2012, but now, a new study shows that the situation is even worse. Those populations, the study found, are fragmented and isolated, with only two of the groups containing more than 30 breeding females. These small groups are unlikely to survive in the long term, and the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is more threatened than ever.

“There are two forests that are still large enough to independently sustain tigers over the long and medium terms,” said Dr Luskin, who conducted the research as part of his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley.

The population numbers are so low that researchers actually identify tigers individually, by the unique stripes and patterns on their back. They logged habitat limits and population spread using hundreds of remote cameras triggered by movement.

New roads in Sumatra have fragmented habitats and put a lot of pressures on all animal populations, but deforestation and clearings are even worse. Tiger density has improved in undisturbed areas in Sumatra, but the problem is that very few areas are truly undisturbed.

There is some reason to be optimistic as the results are somewhat of a mixed bag, but it’s becoming more and more clear that if vegetation clearings continue as they have until now, then the tigers’ chances of survival are very limited.

Hungry for palm

The world just can’t seem to have enough of palm oil. It’s in your mascara, your laundry detergent and in pretty much every mass-produced pastry. Oil-palm plantations have savagely encroached diverse rainforests, and illegal oil-palm concessions are tipping the scale even further.

However, this issue won’t have a simple fix. Palm oil provides direct employment to 4.9 million people in Indonesia, earning the country over $20 billion a year. The local government and palm oil corporations have long claimed that the practice is sustainable and eco-friendly, but the facts seem to suggest otherwise. The practice is all the more lucrative because not only does the country generate revenue from palm plantations — but loggers also earn a lot of money from deforestation. Often, illegally.

“In behind them is often the selective loggers and the illegal loggers who go in and steal some of the high-value timber,” says Mason Campbell, a tropical ecologist at James Cook University.

According to Dr Campbell, the conservation status of forests can be downgraded after they have been logged, giving the industry a foothold to begin development.

“It’s bigger, larger, richer companies coming in, and they’re often — I’m trying to put this politely — intricately linked with the local government officials who’ve approved those roads,” he said.

“Once it’s a production area it’s a bit of a free-for-all for palm oil companies.”

Peter Holmgren, director general of the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, also says that illegal logging operations are just too lucrative for locals to pass down, no matter what happens to endangered species. It’s not just tigers, either.

Critically endangered species such as the orangutan, the Sumatran rhino, and the Bornean Pygmy elephant. Palm oil is also associated with increased greenhouse gas emissions. It may be helping some individuals and companies, but at the broader scale, it’s taking a massive toll on the environment.

Journal Reference: Matthew Scott Luskin, Wido Rizki Albert & Mathias W. Tobler. Sumatran tiger survival threatened by deforestation despite increasing densities in parks. doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01656-4