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How palm oil became the world’s most hated, most used fat source

Oil palm fruit in North Aceh, Indonesia. Fachrul Reza / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

How palm oil became the world’s most hated, most used fat source

Oil palm fruit in North Aceh, Indonesia. Fachrul Reza / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

How palm oil became the world’s most hated, most used fat source

Oil palm fruit in North Aceh, Indonesia. Fachrul Reza / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

How palm oil became the world’s most hated, most used fat source

Oil palm fruit in North Aceh, Indonesia. Fachrul Reza / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Palm oil was first used to dye margarine yellow, but it turned out to be a perfect main ingredient because it stayed firm at room temperature and melted in the mouth, just like butter.

Jonathan E. Robins, Michigan Technological University

Palm oil is everywhere today: in food, soap, lipstick, even newspaper ink. It’s been called the world’s most hated crop because of its association with deforestation in Southeast Asia. But despite boycott campaigns, the world uses more palm oil than any other vegetable oil – over 73 million tons in 2020.

That’s because palm oil is cheap. The plant that makes it, the African oil palm, can produce up to 10 times more oil per hectare than soybeans.

But as my new book on palm oil’s history shows, this controversial commodity hasn’t always been cheap. It became that way thanks to legacies of colonialism and exploitation that still shape today’s industry and that make it challenging to shift palm oil onto a more sustainable path.

Palm oil and its derivatives are ubiquitous in consumer products but can appear under hundreds of names, such as glyceryl and sodium lauryl sulfate.

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