recently came across a shock video produced by Greenpeace. An office employee takes a break to snack on his KitKat chocolate bar. As he bites into it, the candy bar reveals the hair and blood of orangutans.
Swiss multinational Nestlé makes the KitKat bar, which depends on palm oil, probably the most edible oil on the planet. Demand for palm oil products is through the roof. But extracting the oil threatens the habitat of many rain forest animals, including orangutans.
Until the beginning of the 21st century, palm oil ranked second behind soybean oil in global popularity. Now it’s in first place. Some 28 million tons are produced annually.
Palm trees yield oil (from its fruit) and kernel oil (from its seeds). Both are solid or semi-solid at room temperature. An industrial process separates the liquid component for use in frying. This liquid palm oil is used as cooking oil to make margarine and as an ingredient in a number of processed foods. It is also a key ingredient in soaps, powdered detergents and personal care products.
Since palm oil contains 50 percent saturated fats and kernel oil contains 80 percent saturated fats, they’re both suitable for bio-diesel fuel production or as a conventional diesel fuel additive. Although palm oil is a renewable energy source, most major environmental groups (led by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth) oppose palm oil use for its ecologically deleterious side effects. Rainforests are slashed and burned to use the land for palm tree plantations.
Palm oil cultivation, through deforestation, can indirectly produce significant carbon emissions. In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, rainforests often lie on carbon-rich peat bogs. When the forests are cut down and the bogs drained, the carbon rises into the atmosphere. Indonesia is now the fourth-leading global emitter of greenhouse gases. Africa is also beginning to increase palm oil production, threatening its own multitude of ecosystems.
Reading about palm oil use was one thing, but the video made me pause.
I decided to take a closer look at the labels of the products I buy regularly. Many contained palm oil, including organic vegetable cream, a famous Italian hand soap, my wife’s lip gloss, and a pack of taralli – spicy ring-shaped pretzels that I’d bought in a Puglia supermarket. The original recipe for Puglia taralli calls for olive oil so that they have that distinctive Mediterranean flavor. Yet there it was: palm oil.
My next step was the supermarket where things only got worse. Palm oil was everywhere: in ice cream bars, chocolate delights, broth squares, snacks, muffins, saltines, energy bars, chips, baked goods, bread sticks, biscuits. Often, palm oil falls under the general heading “vegetable oil.”
When I asked some friends — owners of restaurants and a pub — what kind of oil they used for frying, only the pub owner confessed to using palm oil. He said it was cheap, reusable and had a high smoke point, giving off little smoke at high temperatures. “But what about the taste?” I asked “And health issues?” “What do I care?” my friend replied. “It’s the customers that buy it, not me.”
It’s been known for years that cholesterol-heavy fatty acids, the kind that increase heart attack risks, come from saturated fat, including vegetable and palm oil. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found convincing evidence that consuming so-called “palmitic acid” contributes to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
What to do?
First, double-check product labels and don’t buy products with palm oil. Being a good consumer also means not buying when there’s a reason not to — and this is one — and to inform others.
The moral of my story is a recipe. It’s fried food that my maternal grandparents prepared in April and May, coinciding with the advent of warm weather. Fishing boats docked, filled to the brim with fresh fare. My grandfather rose early to get the fish directly from the fishermen as they emptied their nets. He’d come home with an array of small fish and a ton of shrimp, essential ingredients for “frittura di nonna Pina,” or Grandmother Pina’s fried seafood mix.
The right frying oil comes first. My grandparents swore by olive oil (not extra virgin; the flavor’s too strong). Over time, playing their own hunches, my grandparents learned that olive oil doesn’t smoke the kitchen or produce bitterness. In fact, olive oil has a high smoke point (210 ° C), making it an ideal oil for frying (the smoke point is the maximum temperature above which a liquid or solid fat starts to decompose, forming toxins and carcinogens). Peanut oil also has a high smoke point (180 ° C), with the additional advantage of neutral flavor.
Now, you’re ready to begin — palm oil free.
La Frittura di Nonna Pina
- 500 g of shrimp or prawns or scampi + 300 grams of small fish (e.g. cod).
- 260 g flour.
- 3 eggs.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or peanut oil (select the same oil that you will use for frying).
- 25 cl of beer.
- A pinch of salt.
- Olive oil or peanut oil (for frying).
- 2 or 3 lemons.
- To prepare the batter, put 260 grams of flour into a large bowl. Add eggs, 3 tablespoons oil and salt, mix with a non-metal spoon, and add beer gradually. Cover the bowl with a towel and let sit for 2 hours.
- Heat the oil for frying.
- Shell the shrimp and clean the fish, basting them in flour and shaking them down to remove the excess. Dip them in batter and hot oil in small portions. To test the temperature of the oil, either use a thermometer or stick a toothpick in the oil and see if it fries.
- When the shrimp and fish are golden brown, pat dry with paper towels. Cut lemons into wedges, and serve the shrimp with the fish — make sure it’s hot.
Wash the meal down with a nice dry white wine such a Sardinian Vermentino or a Falanghina del Benevento.