Palm oil– which has long been a staple of diets in Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil– is increasingly being used in food processing in the rest of the world. It is valued for its cheapness, and its property of congealing at room temperature.
Since the discovery that oils processed through hydrogenation can be linked to heart disease, palm oil has been creeping as a substitute into processed food and food products like margarine, potato chips, cakes, and crackers. Hydrogenation converts liquid vegetable oils to solid or semi-solid fats, whereas palm oil "hardens" naturally.
Palm oil often lurks in the ingredient description of many processed food products under the umbrella term of "vegetable oils."
It has been targeted by environmentalists for its impacts on deforestation, habitat loss of endangered species, increased greenhouse gas emissions.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded with the aim of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through global standards and certification.
For more information about palm oil, listen to the Monday 31 October episode of the Food Programme podcast, sponsored by the BBC Radio 4.