Becoming a Conscious Consumer: The Facts on Palm Oil

The oil palm tree grown in the tropics produces high-quality oil used in cooking, food products, detergents, cosmetics and biofuel. Palm oil is a very productive crop with global production and demand increasing rapidly. To make room for palm crops, huge areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems where conservation is important are being stripped bare, as well as forest-dwelling people losing their land. Boycotting every product that we know to contain palm oil is not realistic, nor helpful – but we can support brands using certified sustainable palm oil, produced in socially and environmentally responsible ways.

There is currently a lot of buzz around the ugly facts behind the palm oil industry through UK supermarket Iceland’s commercial, which highlights the destruction of rainforests for palm oil production. I first heard of the production and vast use of unsustainable, unethically produced palm oil during a Nutrition class in my first year of university. Since then, I have attempted to make conscious choices when using my purchasing power, and I am hoping to share some insight and help spread the facts.

Impact of the Palm Oil Industry

So why is the palm oil industry under close watch and what is the extent of its destruction? According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production, with plantations spreading across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

  • This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers in less than 3 years.
  • Deforestation for palm oil production also contributes significantly to climate change. The removal of native forests often involves the burning of timber and remaining forest undergrowth, emitting immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere and making countries like Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
  • Water pollution is a result of palm oil mills generating tons of effluent (out-flowing of water or gas to a natural body of water). This can cause freshwater pollution, and affects downstream biodiversity and people.
  • Soil erosion occurs when forests are being cleared to establish plantations, and the main cause of erosion is the planting of oil palms on steep slopes. Erosion causes increased flooding and silt deposits in rivers and ports, and eroded areas require more fertilizer and other inputs, including repair of roads and other infrastructure.
  • As plantations destroy the rainforest land that the local people depend on, communities are continuously finding themselves with no choice but to become plantation workers. The palm oil industry has been linked to major human rights violations, including child labour in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia.


What Can We Do?

Hillary Rosner writes about a couple of ways you can work to protect standing forest, such as working with large-scale buyers of palm oil like Nestlé, Unilever and Wal-Mart to ensure that sustainably sourced palm oil truly means ethically produced and deforestation-free. The WWF is working on defining, implementing and promoting better practices for sustainable palm oil production through their Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is a large, international group of palm oil producers, palm oil buyers, and environmental and social groups.

In our daily lives, we can slow demand of palm oil produced in an unsustainable way, in large part by being aware of the clear link between the seemingly harmless, common products we purchase and the environmental disaster they’re causing, and by choosing to make conscious purchases.

Which Products Contain Palm Oil?

Palm oil is found in a long list of products and boycotting every product that we know to contain palm oil is not realistic, as well as not helpful – here’s why:

55298b4744c6dc26a4859a0124e316d9Source: WWF

Instead, we can do our very best to try and choose products made with sustainably sourced palm oil, decrease our consumption of products that are not, and encourage manufacturers to find alternatives to palm oil to put into their products. Palm oil can usually be found in the following products:

  1. Lipstick – Palm oil is used in lipstick as it holds color well, doesn’t melt at high temperatures, and has a smooth application and virtually no taste.
  2. Pizza dough – Palm oil is added to both frozen and fresh pizza dough to stop it from sticking together and to enhance texture.
  3. Instant noodles – Palm oil is up to 20% of the weight of a pack of instant noodles. It’s used to pre-cook the noodles so that all you have to do is add hot water.
  4. Chocolate – Palm oil helps create a smooth and shiny appearance in some chocolate and keeps it from melting.
  5. Cookies – Semi-solid at room temperature, palm oil is used to give baked goods a creamy taste and texture.
  6. Ice cream – Palm oil makes ice cream smooth and creamy.
  7. Packaged bread – Palm oil is now widely used to make bread because it is solid at room temperature, easy to bake with and inexpensive.
  8. Margarine – Palm oil is used in margarine because it is solid at room temperature and is free of trans fats.
  9. Shampoo – Palm oil is used as a conditioning agent that helps restore the natural oils of the hair that are stripped away by most shampoos.
  10. Soap – Palm oil is used for its ability to remove oil and dirt from hair and skin as well to moisturize.
  11. Detergent – Palm oil is refined to create soaps, washing powder and other cleaning products.
  12. Biodiesel – Palm oil can be used to produce biodiesel and biofuel.

Palm Oil Supermarket ProductsSource: WWF

Choosing Sustainably Sourced Palm Oil Products

Act for Wildlife has created a list of brands that use palm oil that has been sourced in a responsible way, without causing harm to the environment. Click here for their shopping list.

Kate from Travel for Difference has a blog with a list of products containing palm oil, ones that do not contain any palm oil, and ones that contain sustainable palm oil/no deforestation policy. The comprehensive list of products spans categories of nut butters/spreads, margarine, fast food, frozen meals, cereal, drinks, biscuits, crackers, cookies, potato chips, packaged bread, chocolate, candy, ice cream, instant noodles, makeup, skin care, toothpaste, shampoo, hair care, soap, detergents, cleaning products, baby products and pet care products. She does note that this list was conducted through her own research in Australia and is based on Australian brands. International companies may use different ingredients depending on the location.

You can also look for either the RSPO label or the Green Palm label:

  • The RSPO label ensures you purchase products made with certified sustainable palm oil. This label gives you the confidence that the palm oil was produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.RSPO_Trademark_Logo
  • The Green Palm label indicates products in support of the transition to certified palm oil. Proceeds from Green Palm certificates help growers fund the transition to sustainable palm oil.

Palm oil and its derivatives can appear under more names than just ‘palm oil.’ If you see these ingredients on a label, you can call the company and inquire as to whether or not they include palm oil and/or if they source palm oil from sustainable enterprises:
1. Elaeis guineensis
2. Etyl palmitate
3. Glyceryl
4. Hydrogenated palm glycerides
5. Octyl palmitate
6. Palm fruit oil
7. Palm kernel
8. Palm kernel oil
9. Palm stearine
10. Palmate
11. Palmitate
12. Palmitic acid
13. Palmitoyl oxostearamide
14. Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
15. Palmityl alcohol
16. Palmolein
17. Sodium kernelate
18. Sodium laureth sulfate
19. Sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate
20. Sodium lauryl sulfate
21. Sodium palm kernelate
22. Stearate
23. Stearic acid
24. Vegetable fat
25. Vegetable oil


Apart from choosing sustainably sourced palm oil products, keep in mind that a big problem is that more and more agricultural land is necessary to keep up with consumers’ increasing demand for food and other products. Switching to other types of oil will require even more land and therefore more deforestation than the cultivation of palm oil, as palm oil is one of the most efficient and sustainable types of oil. One major solution is limiting our ecological footprint, for example by consuming less, not buying unnecessary products and paying attention to the environmental costs of products (including the amount of land needed to make a product).

I hope you found this blog helpful in becoming a conscious consumer. Got a question regarding the palm oil industry and its products? Let me know in the comments below.

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