What if we told you that palm oil is killing endangered species (orangutans being the most famous example) and destroying the livelihood of indigenous tribes? Would that be enough to convince you to stop using products with palm oil?
This guide will help you understand why palm oil production is so destructive, illustrate some of the myriad products with palm oil we should avoid, and give you ideas on how to make those products at home so that you can feel good about the food you’re putting into your body.
News of the fires in Indonesia to clear rainforest for palm oil plantations received international media coverage in October. In The Guardian, George Monbiot defined them as “the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century.” But while 2015’s fires were worse than usual, the slash and burn agricultural process occurs annually, and many time these fires burn out of control.
Palm oil is one of the most profitable crops and grows well in hot, humid climates. Slash and burn agriculture is the quickest way to clear the land, appealing to corporations and impoverished small-scale farmers alike. An estimated 3.5 million hectares of rainforest in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea have already been lost to make way for palm oil plantations.
The rainforest floor contains peat and other organic materials, so it often keeps burning after the fires have been extinguished. In 2015 the result was a toxic cloud that enveloped most of Southeast Asia for nearly two months, affecting the lives of millions and killing 10 people in Indonesia. The long-term health effects and impact on global warming are predicted to be severe.
For some reason the world remains largely silent about this catastrophe. Palm oil interests run deep, and major corporations have done little or nothing to halt the environmental destruction.
The RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) was established in 2004 with the aim of promoting “certified sustainable” palm oil. Unfortunately, this initiative was too little, too late, with lax membership criteria and only two members thrown out for non-compliance to date.
Suppliers (many of which are small-scale farmers) are often not checked thoroughly. Corners have been cut in order to show that memberships are on the increase. Sadly, it seems like the RSPO is doing little more than adding greenwashed buzzwords to a product that is the opposite of “sustainable.”
Obviously it would be great to avoid buying products with palm oil in them. The problem is that, while the EU made Palm Oil labeling compulsory in December 2014, but labeling elsewhere may be deceptive. The problem is that Palm Oil hides behind myriad different names.
Some of them contain “Palm,” including octyl palmitate, palmytil alcohol, palm kernel, Palm kernel oil, Palm fruit oil, Palm stearine, and many others. So if you see the word Palm in any form, best to avoid it. Other known Palm Oil pseudonyms include cetyl alcohol, emulsifiers, glyceryl stearate, lauryl sulphate, sodium kernelate and stearic acid (see full list in image above).
The biggest problem is that Palm Oil is often listed as “Vegetable Oil,” deceptively appealing to vegetarians and other health-conscious types. Unfortunately, processed Palm Oil is actually very high in saturated fats and calories. Not only that, but Palm Oil contains a certain degree of organ toxicity, could increase the risk of heart disease, and it is linked to insulin resistance and obesity.
In the United States, “Vegetable Oil” is a generic term also used to describe oils that are far less detrimental (both to the environment and to people’s health), including coconut, sunflower and olive oil. Makes the EU’s compulsory labeling law seem like a smart idea, doesn’t it?
It has been estimated that over half of the products in your local supermarket include Palm oil. Snacks, cookies, candy bars and potato chips are common examples, including popular products like Cheerios, Chex Mix, Cool Whip, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Edy’s Ice Cream, Oreo Cookies, Quaker Oats, Ritz Crackers, Pringles, Hershey’s Chocolate, Mars, Snickers, Swiss Miss, and Nutella.
But Palm Oil is also found in beauty products such as lipsticks, shampoo and soap. It’s found in several brands of packaged bread, because it allows loaves to remain soft on supermarket shelves for longer. It’s found in instant noodles, packaged ice cream, chocolate, detergents, industrial pizza dough and margarine… basically just about every processed, packaged product that most of us use daily.
For an extensive list of brands and products that contain Palm Oil, check out the Deforestation Education website. You’ll note that many of these products are unhealthy anyway, as most types of junk food and candy contain Palm Oil. Eliminating these products from our diets will not only benefit the environment in the long term, but also our health.
So how can we avoid products with Palm Oil altogether? It starts with taking time to study the labels and try to stop buying the aforementioned products.
We’re not suggesting you should go cold turkey on ALL your favorite snacks. But if each of us consumed just half as much Palm Oil as we do now, the agricultural industry would get the message loud and clear.
Start by gradually replacing store-bought snacks with homemade. When that’s not possible (we’re not suggesting you should start making all your own lipsticks and detergents!), shop at organic stores. Just make sure you ask them for an ingredient list: Something labeled “vegan” or “organic” might still contain Palm Oil or its derivates.
Baking cookies and homemade cereal bars is fairly easy, and much better for us. A quick search on Google reveals many recipes for granola bars that take less 30 minutes to make. There are several Palm Oil-free Nutella alternatives on the market, but they’re a little pricy. You can also make your own homemade Nutella in about the same time it’d take to drive to the grocery store and back.
Baking your own bread and making your own ice cream may be time-consuming and difficult, especially if you have children. But smaller local artisan stores– hand-made ice cream shops and family bakeries– are far less likely than supermarket brands to make use of Palm Oil.
The bottom line is that we can all do something to reduce our usage of products with Palm Oil. Don’t let news of the devastating Indonesian fires go unnoticed. Don’t think that this is too big an issue, or that one person can’t make a difference. Every little bit helps. Share this article with your friends and help spread the word about the environmental consequences of Palm Oil. The rainforest and its inhabitants will thank you! –Margherita Ragg
Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer and English teacher from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism and outdoor activities, and runs nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.Margherita has an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University, and was runner-up to the 2012 Guardian Travel Writer of the Year competition. She is one of the hosts of the @WednesdayRoamers weekly Instagram competition. Her other passions (in no particular order) are rock climbing, skiing, homebrewing and her cat Tappo. Follow Margherita on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
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