Palm oil is an edible vegetable that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. It seems harmless enough, after all, we eat plants, fruits, and vegetables that come from trees all the time. However, palm oil has a shady and very dangerous past, present, and future if we don’t make an effort to change things.
Scientifically named Elaeis guineensis, there are two types of palm oil that can be derived from palm oil trees: crude palm oil which is made from squeezing the actual fruit, and palm kernel oil that is which is made from crushing the kernel inside the fruit.
A brief history of palm oil:
Oil palm trees are native to Africa and were brought to South-East Asia over a hundred years ago as a decorative crop. Now while 42 other countries produce palm oil, Malaysia and Indonesia make up about 85% of palm oil production.
Palm oil is absolutely everywhere and in over 50% of all packaged food at the grocery store. Not to mention personal care products as well. Seriously, do to your pantry and take a look at some of the ingredients. Unless you’re actively avoiding palm oil, I guarantee you’ll find a few products with it as an ingredient. Why is this? Well, palm oil is extremely versatile and has many functions that make it so widely used. It’s stable at high temperature and resistant to oxidation giving it much longer shelf life. And since it is odourless and colourless it’s a staple oil for cooking in African and Asian countries similarity to how we use olive oil for cooking.
The dangers of Palm oil:
So what’s the problem then? Palm oil has and continues to be a significant contributor to climate change. It is also a leading cause of deforestation, destroying some of the world’s most biodiverse forests and the homes to some already endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino. (Source)
This amount of forest loss is throwing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, and since palm oil is in nearly everything, there’s no sign of it slowing down.
Palm oil production also comes with a pretty hefty ethical price tag as it’s been known to use the exploitation of workers as well as child labour. Basically: palm oil itself is fine. The way it’s produced and sourced: is absolutely not fine, dangerous, and unsustainable in every way.
What solutions are there?
With this amount of destruction and impact, it can feel a little hopeless. So I want to make it clear that changing the palm oil industry is not on you. That being said we can make small changes in our lives that can have a big impact. Similar to reducing our meat and dairy consumption in an effort to combat the impact the meat industry has on the planet, we can reduce the amount of palm oil and products with palm oil.
I know it may seem pointless but to put it simply: if we reduce the demand for the products, the production slows OR it gets a message across that we’re not ok with these practices. Try scanning the ingredients the next time you’re out shopping and see what you can find that doesn’t contain palm oil.
Here are a few other words for palm oil that are quite sneaky:
- Elaeis guineensis
- Etyl palmitate
- Hydrogenated palm glycerides
- Octyl palmitate
- Palm fruit oil
- Palm kernel
- Palm kernel oil
- Palm stearine
- Palmitic acid
- Palmitoyl oxostearamide
- Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
- Palmityl alcohol
- Sodium kernelate
- Sodium laureth sulfate
- odium lauryl lactylate/sulphate
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Sodium palm kernelate
- Stearic acid
- Vegetable fat
- Vegetable oil
Now, I don’t have this list memorized and I’m sure if I looked in my cupboard I would have a few products that contain one of these words. I’m not perfect, and I’m not asking you to be. I’m just asking you to make an effort. A simple effort truly does go a long way.
The good news is there is work being done in the palm oil industry. The RSPO (Roundtable on sustainable palm oil) is a non-profit organization that has created a set of environmental standards companies must achieve in order to be label “sustainable palm oil”. When done correctly, these practices can help to minimize the impact that palm oil sourcing has on our planet. Because while there are companies that will gladly cut corners at the cost of our planet, there are those that won’t. And there are more than 4,000 members certified by the RSPO!
So while I may not be perfect, I do make an effort to intentionally support brands that are certified sustainable palm oil. Because just like almost everything I believe there are responsible and irresponsible ways to do things. It’s just a shame that most big corporations choose to be irresponsible and it feels like our job to clean up their mess.
You can use this handy website to look up your favourite brands to see how well they’re doing with palm oil!
palm oil checker
I hope this post helped to inform you on the dangers of palm oil, but also give you a bit of hope to know that change can happen and there are people hard at work to change the narrative of palm oil sourcing. By being more mindful of the products and ingredients we consume, we can be apart of that change.
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