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Indonesia (file photo): Regenerated palm oil trees are seen growing on the site of destroyed tropical rainforest.

Dimas Ardian, Getty Images

Letter of the Day (Dec. 14): Palm oil

  • December 14, 2012 - 12:08 AM

A Dec. 12 commentary ("Cargill can save the orangutan"), about the harm done to orangutans in Indonesia due to imported palm oil, did not mention an important factor that drives palm oil consumption in the United States: the trans fat labeling requirement that went into effect in January, 2006. Prior to this requirement, palm oil consumption in the United States had declined due to public awareness of the health risks associated with the consumption of saturated fat, in which palm oil is very high.

From 1998 through 2004, palm oil imports by the United States averaged about 200,000 tons per year. In 2005, in preparation for the trans fat labeling requirement that would take effect the next year, food companies began to reformulate their products in order to be able to claim "zero grams of trans fat" on the front of the package.

Palm oil, although high in saturated fat, does not contain trans fat. Palm oil imports increased to 463,000 tons in 2005 -- more than double what they had averaged the previous several years. Since then, the trend toward greater and greater use of palm oil by food companies has continued, with imports reaching 868,000 tons in 2007 and 1,200,000 tons in 2011 -- nearly six times what they were less than a decade ago.

The biodiesel industry consumes some palm oil as feedstock, but its use in that application is less than its use by the food industry. Outright bans against trans fats in restaurants in some major cities (including New York City) and the entire state of California have further spurred use of palm oil.

Palm oil is relatively cheap compared to most other food oils. So unless there is a broad public boycott against palm oil, either due to its high concentration of saturated fat, or to concern for orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia, it will continue to play a significant role in the U.S. food industry.

ROBERT W. CARLSON, PLYMOUTH

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