What if we told you that a single ingredient contained in many of your favorite foods– palm oil– is wiping out rainforests all around the world, from Palawan, Philippines to the Brazilian Amazon?
What if we told you that palm oil products are 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 and illustrate some of the myriad palm oil products, as consumers, should try our best to avoid.
It will also give you some ideas on how to make those same products at home, so that you can feel good about the food you’re putting into your body!
- What is Palm Oil?
- Palm Oil Uses
- Why Palm Oil Products are Bad
- How to Identify Products that Contain Palm Oil
- Products with Palm Oil
- How to Avoid Products With Palm Oil
- FAQs and Palm Oil Facts
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is probably the world’s most popular edible vegetable oil, made from the pulp of the fruit found in oil palms.
The African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), which is native to west and southwest Africa, is the most commonly used for commercial agriculture. The American oil palm (Elaeis oleifera), which is native to tropical Central and South America, is primarily used for local oil production in that region.
Mature oil palm trees have a single stem and can grow to more than 60 feet tall, with fern-like pinnate leaves that can be 10 to 16 feet long. The plant produces tightly packed clusters of small flowers, each of which has three petals.
The palm’s fruit, which grows in bunches, is about the same size as a plum and reddish in color. Each fruit has a fleshy outer layer known as the pericarp as well as a single palm kernel seed, both of which are rich in oil.
READ MORE: The Biggest Forests in the World (for your World Travel Bucket List)
Palm Oil Uses
The history of palm oil goes back around 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. Archaeologists found residue in a tomb at Abydos that was dated back to 3,000 BCE. Palm oil has been used as a cooking oil in West and Central Africa for centuries, and by the late 1800s it was the primary export of countries like Ghana and Nigeria.
European merchants eventually began trading for it, and the British widely used it as a machine lubricant during the Industrial Revolution. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries palm oil was being introduced in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it grew especially well in tropical rainforest areas.
These days palm oil is used in thousands of products, from foods and soaps to biofuel. Its current popularity is easy to understand: Oil palms are easy and inexpensive to grow, whether on small family farms or huge plantations.
Because palm oil has more saturated fats than canola oil, corn oil, linseed oil, safflower oil, and other vegetable oils, it withstands extreme heat and resists oxidation much better. It also contains no trans fats, which makes it healthier for people concerned about cholesterol and heart disease.
But of course you wouldn’t be reading a story on How to Avoid Products With Palm Oil if you didn’t know that the product has some huge negatives associated with it as well.
READ MORE: Fires in Indonesia: How Palm Oil is Killing Orangutans
Why Palm Oil Products Are Bad
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.
Deforestation for palm oil regularly occurs in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. An estimated 3.5 million hectares of rainforest has already destroyed.
The rainforest floor contains peat and other organic materials, so it often keeps burning after the fires have been extinguished.
READ MORE: The Top 25 Things to do in Malaysia for Nature Lovers
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.”
READ MORE: Saving Endangered Asian Animals: The Best Conservation Programs
How to Identify Products that Contain Palm Oil
Obviously it would be great to avoid buying products that contain palm oil.
Unfortunately, while the EU made Palm Oil labeling compulsory in December 2014, 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, it’s 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 health risks of palm oil include organ toxicity, increased 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?
READ MORE: Why Palm Oil is Bad for Palawan, Philippines (& the Planet)
Products with Palm Oil are Everywhere!
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.
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.
Here’s a brief list of the many brands and products that include palm oil as an ingredient:
- Bagel Bites
- Balance Bar
- Bird’s Eye
- Blue Bonnet Table Spreads
- Boston Market
- Butterball Turkey
- Canada Dry
- Chef Boyardee
- Clif Bar
- Country Crock
- Crunch N‘ Munch
- Dr. Pepper
- Earth Balance
- Egg Beaters
- French’s Mustard
- Girl Scout Cookies
- Gulden’s Mustard
- Harmony Premium Trail Mix
- Hawaiian Punch
- Hebrew National
- Heinz Baby Food
- Heinz Ketchup
- Jack Daniels
- Jell-O No Bake Homestyle Cheese Cake Desert
- Jiffy Pop
- Knott‘s Berry Farm
- La Choy
- Lea & Perrins
- Little Debbie Snacks
- Luna Bar
- Marie Callender‘s Frozen Meals
- Mrs. Fields Cookies
- Newmans Own Organics
- Nissin Noodles / Ramen
- Ore Ida
- Orville Redenbachers
- Pepperidge Farm Cookies
- Peter Pan
- Post Cereals
- Power Bar
- Quaker Oats
- Russell Stover Chocolates
- South Beach Diet foods
- Soy Milk (various)
- Sun Ridge Farms
- Sweet’N Low
- Zone Perfect
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.
READ MORE: Top Foods to Buy Organic (& When It’s Not Necessary)
How to Avoid Products With Palm Oil
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 derivatives.
READ MORE: 5 Environmentally Friendly Homemade Toiletries
Palm Oil Free Foods You Can Make Yourself
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 can be a little pricey for our budget. 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!
FAQs and Palm Oil Facts
Where is palm oil grown?
Palm Oil is grown in hot humid climates 10 degrees above and below the equator. This area across Asia, Africa and South America is primarily tropical rainforest. Most of the world’s supply of palm oil is grown in and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia.
Why is palm oil bad?
Palm Oil is bad for the rainforests, biodiversity, and air quality. Deforestation occurs when the rainforest is cleared for palm oil plantations. The land is cleared through a slash and burn agricultural process, which can often cause uncontrollable fires and fill the air with smoke pollution. Clearing the rainforest destroys the habitat for many animals especially orangutans.
Is palm oil healthy?
Palm Oil is high in saturated fats and calories and has some connections to organ toxicity, insulin resistance and obesity.
What are some palm oil uses?
Palm oil is used in half of all processed foods and some beauty products. It has also been used for cooking oil, machine lubricant, and biofuel. –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.