Thoughts on Palm Oil

*top pic from BBC

i had heard a lot of negative news on palm oil but hadn’t given myself the time to really dig in and get the full story. it’s a very complicated problem that doesn’t really lend itself to a straightforward solution. i know there are a lot of people out there that make it seem like these problems have quick fixes, or that by completely cutting something out, we solve problems… but from my somewhat limited research and understanding, it doesn’t seem like that will do when it comes to the global challenges and usage of palm oil. 

i thought i’d break down the facts for you in a digestible manner and offer my thoughts on how to move forward. i would love to hear yours as well in the comments or on instagram.

what is palm oil? 

essentially – the most commonly used vegetable oil. grown only in the tropics (asia, africa, and latin america – although mostly malaysia and indonesia).

source: wholefoodsmagazine.com

where is it used? 

thousands of everyday products, biofuel, and processed foods (in more than 1/2 of our processed foods!). it’s pretty much impossible to avoid.

  • cereal
  • packaged cookies + crackers + chips
  • cake mix
  • chocolates + candy
  • cleaning products and laundry
  • detergents
  • hair care
  • health food bars
  • ice cream
  • margarine / butter spreads
  • peanut butter
  • generic skin care brands/products
  • soap bars + liquid
  • toothpase

other names for it:

because very rarely does a product include the ingredient “palm oil”…

the good —-

  • palm oil is used across industries and product varieties.
  • it’s helped to increase developing economies and is even synonymous with poverty eradication in many developing nations.
  • originally was chosen for its environmental friendliness.
  • very quick to grow and produces a vast amount of product in a limited amount of space.
  • palm oil is a very productive crop – it offers a far greater yield at a lower cost of production than other vegetable oils.
  • price – it’s cheap to produce and utilize – therefore keeping everyone’s costs down.

as the guardian puts it…

…the world’s most versatile vegetable oil. It can handle frying without spoiling, and blends well with other oils. Its combination of different types of fats and its consistency after refining make it a popular ingredient in packaged baked goods. Its low production costs make it cheaper than frying oils such as cottonseed or sunflower. It provides the foaming agent in virtually every shampoo, liquid soap or detergent. Cosmetics manufacturers prefer it to animal tallow for its ease of application and low price. It is increasingly used as a cheap raw material for biofuels, especially in the European Union. It functions as a natural preservative in processed foods, and actually does raise the melting point of ice-cream. Palm oil can be used as an adhesive that binds together the particles in fibreboard. Oil palm trunks and fronds can be made into everything from plywood to the composite body of Malaysia’s national automobile.

the bad —- 

  • because of the increasing demand for cheap oil for all the above products, demand is expected to quadruple by 2050.
  • expansion comes at the expense of tropical forests.
  • widespread destruction of forest leads to destruction of critical habitats for many endangered species and a lifeline for some human communities (including: Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos and orangutans).
  • there are known human rights and labor abuses amongst farmworkers.
  • the burning of forests releases smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, polluting the air and contributing to climate change.
  • many of the products currently using palm oil had original used animal tallow or other animal by-products (hey – using the whole animal – that’s good!), but more modern demand away from animal-based products led us to increasing palm oil usage.

the ugly, aka the not-so-solution —- 

  • many believe they can eradicate the problem by simply using products without palm oil.
  • however, India, China, and Indonesia account for nearly 40% of all palm oil consumed worldwide. the US is actually a small consumer in this global problem.
  • completely avoiding palm oil means that a different substance will be replaced within this endless list of products; thus increasing demand and ultimately supply on whatever that new (or old) product will be.
  • as noted above, this is a generally speaking sustainable plant. other plants would require more land and time to produce the quantity at which we would demand – which would ultimately lead to more deforestation, (currently palm accounts for 6.6% of cultivated land for oils and fats, while delivering 38.7% of the output).
  • the World Wildlife Federation initiated years ago the “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil” consisting of palm growers, manufacturers and retailers to establish a sustainable production of the oil. while this has been ridiculed by other organizations (Greenpeace, etc.), to be substandard and not effective – the RSPO continues to improve its efforts and mandates. it is known that palm oil has one of the most complicated supply chains of any ingredient. they hope that as the certification becomes more widely spread, demand will increase as with it, the effectiveness.

my personal opinion on how to best address this problem as an individual consumer, understanding the complexity and size of the issue:

  1. move away from processed foods. in all likelihood, you won’t be able to escape palm oil entirely – but by removing fast foods and packaged / pre-made foods from your diet, you will be decreasing demand for a large percentage of those products that use this hydrogenated oil. buy local and organic as much as possible.
  2. start looking for the certification below. the more consumer demand for the certification, the more companies will take it seriously. it will also enable RSPO to increase it’s requirements and become more demanding. these certified products will cost more – but it will be worth it in the long run.
look for these on your products!

general sources and additional reads:

World Wild Life Fund

The Guardian 

National Geographic  

Smithsonian

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