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Palm Oil: What You Need to Know

Palm Oil Fruit in Indonesia (Photo: Antara Foto Agency/Reuters)

Palm Oil is a common ingredient in many household products and foods, and has caused quite a bit of controversy in recent years. While palm oil trees were once grown simply for their ornamental qualities, they are now driving a global industry that touches almost every area of production, from the food supply to fuel. However, there is a considerable amount of contention surrounding palm oil, as accusations of human rights abuses, environmental damage, and deception have surrounded the industry from as early as the mid 2000’s. There are even claims that so-called sustainable palm oil is not as sustainable as one might like to believe. Despite this, palm oil use has skyrocketed over the last twenty years, with minimal consumer awareness. If you’re interested in understanding the debate surrounding palm oil, or simply want to make an informed choice when it comes to every day products you use, here’s what you need to know.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil sourced from the fruit of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis). Two types of oil are typically produced – crude palm oil, made from squeezing the fruit, and palm kernel oil, which is made from crushing the kernel. While the trees are native to Africa, they were brought to South-East Asia about 100 years ago. Currently, Indonesia and Malaysia produce about 85% of the global supply of palm oil, but 42 other countries produce it as well.

It is estimated that palm oil is included in about 50% of all packaged goods available today, touching everything from skincare products and toothpaste to pizza and animal feed. In some parts of the world, it is also used as a bio fuel. Unfortunately, palm oil is growing increasingly hard to recognize on product labels, often going by other names like PKO, Etyl palmitate, and sodium palmate. In fact, the government currently does not require mandatory labeling for palm oil, or palm oil derivatives.

A fire at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra (Photo: AFP)

Why Is Palm Oil Everywhere?

Palm oil has become so widely used due to two major factors: cost, and versatility. Palm oil began gaining popularity in the 90’s, during the push to remove trans fats from food products. Not only was palm oil free from trans fats, but it was significantly cheaper. Additionally, it had many functions, from keeping spreads spreadable, to giving fried products a crispy texture. It was also colorless and odorless, so it didn’t change the look or feel of the food it was being added to. Soon, it was something of a “miracle ingredient” in the food world, and as palm oil producers worked to keep prices low, other industries began to take notice.

From 1995 to 2015, global production of palm oil nearly quadrupled, as producers of all kinds of household products made the switch, from more expensive oils to palm oil. This was primarily driven by cost, which is still the leading factor influencing the often-unnecessary inclusion of palm oil in skincare, beauty, and household products today. Manufacturers love palm oil because it is widely available, high yield, very cheap to produce (not considering environmental costs) and can be harvested year-round.

What Are the Problems with Palm Oil?

The problem with palm oil is multi-faceted. First, and most commonly cited, are the environmental damages caused by palm oil production. Palm oil trees grow best in rain forests, where ancient ecosystems are rapidly being destroyed to create palm oil plantations. Indonesia is being deforested faster than any other country in the world for this reason. The method for destroying these rain forests is just as dire, as the cheapest and predominantly used method to clear the land is by cutting and burning the existing forest. On top of destroying tropical rain forests that capture carbon dioxide, this fire is creating hazardous pollution and sending smog to cities hundreds of miles away. As a final and disturbing consequence, these rain forests are also the habitats for many critically endangered species, like Orangutans, Rhinos, Sumatran Tigers, and many others. It is estimated that 80-90% of their primary habitat has been lost in the last twenty years.

Environmental impact isn’t the only issue with the palm oil industry. On top of the devastation to ecosystems and wildlife, palm oil plantations are the backdrop for shocking human rights violations and child labor. According to a report by Amnesty International, in Indonesia, children as young as 8 were doing hazardous, hard physical labor, often dropping out of school to help their parents on plantations. This was driven by workers being required to hit ridiculously high targets, or have their pay cut. As a result, children and spouses are joining workers on the plantation in order to maintain their income. While working, the report found that plantations were not providing safety equipment, with workers suffering from respiratory damage and severe injuries from the use of paraquat, a highly toxic chemical still used on plantations, despite being banned. Even those who aren’t employed on a plantation are affected, as some local indigenous people have lost their land rights as the industry has exploded, and many are being impacted by pollution.

Orangutans rescued near a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. It's estimated that 50 Orangutans are killed every week as a result of the palm oil industry and deforestation. (Photo: Four Paws International)

What About Sustainable Palm Oil?

Sustainability is very tricky when it comes to the palm oil industry. First, the supply chain is large, making it very difficult to trace specific product from various plantations and producers. Second, there is very little governance when it comes to enforcing standards and ensuring products truly are sustainable. For instance, a palm oil derivative, usually used as an emulsifier, can be labeled as ‘sustainable’ when containing as little as 5% sustainable oil. Additionally, plantations can state that they intend to become sustainable in the future and become certified now. A quick search online will reveal numerous other examples of the certification process being abused and companies breaking their promises to be sustainable. The bottom line is at this point, certification and the standards it carries are not being enforced and the criteria has abundant opportunities for loopholes and corruption. While we can hope that in the future, a truly sustainable option will exist, today’s options seem questionable at best.

As A Consumer, What Can I Do?

If you feel empowered to act after learning more about the palm oil industry, there are several steps you can take. First, keep reading and educating yourself about the issues. Unfortunately, these have gone widely unnoticed by consumers over the last two decades, only beginning to enter the mainstream media in the last couple years. Armed with this knowledge, talk to family, friends, and other consumers. Consumer awareness is key, as the more demand consumers create for transparency and palm oil free products, the faster things will change. Finally, if you feel compelled to reduce or eliminate your own personal palm oil consumption, familiarize yourself with the many names palm oil and its derivatives go by. There are over 200 ingredient names associated to palm oil, and a quick internet search can reveal the most common. As a general rule though, watch for words that contain “palm”, like “palmitate”. It might be helpful to switch altogether to products that pledge to be palm oil free. At Madd House Hill, our entire product line is palm oil free, using rich oils like coconut oil and shea butter to nourish your skin instead.

While things may seem bleak, there is hope! Together, we can work to create a world that is less dependent on palm oil.

Until next time,

Madd House Hill

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