We Need to be Talking About Palm Oil
The Invisible Substance in Your Home That's Shrinking Rainforests
Shopping in 2022 feels like traversing a minefield. It feels like you’re making a political statement depending on the brands you purchase! With every corporate Twitter hashtagging their brand’s cause of choice (and some even lobbying for it), going to the grocery store requires making little choices that butterfly-effect themselves into government policy.
As if grocery shopping wasn’t enough of a chore already!
Dear reader, I have some bad news. Beneath all the pledges, charitable donations, and obnoxious press releases lie something more covert and more damaging. Amidst all the turmoil of this last decade, it’s almost skirted by without issue, but because of readers like you, it might just be caught before it’s too late.
Introducing: Palm Oil, the quietest rainforest eradicator.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is a cheap type of oil with a wide variety of practical uses. As it is edible, it has become a cheap substitute for vegetable oil and butter, often used in heavily processed foods to lower costs.
It is a versatile substance and has been used for wound care, biofuel, and an overwhelming amount of cleaning and personal care products. Since palm oil foams, it is commonly found in most soaps and detergents. If you’re purchasing processed foods, brand-name cleaners, or popular health items, it’s a safe bet that there’s palm oil in your home.
Where does Palm Oil Come from?
Palm oil is created by squeezing the fruit or kernel of two species of palm tree, the American Oil Palm (native to South America) and the Macaw-fat palm (native to west and southwest Africa). As it is a tropical plant that needs plenty of water, it’s usually grown near (or sometimes inside of) rainforests.
Though not native to the region, many countries in Southeast Asia have picked up palm oil crop production, as their climate is tropical enough to easily grow there. The crop was originally brought over to the region by British Colonizers in the early 1900s but has increased greatly over the last hundred years.
Why is Palm Oil Bad?
Palm oil is primarily a problem because of deforestation. The amount of demand for the substance is causing wide swaths of forests to be cut down in Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Thailand, and many other countries throughout South America and Africa. The areas that are being deforested are some of the most biodiverse on earth, some of which house endangered species like the Sumatran Rhino and the Orangutan.
When countries fail to provide resources for their poorest citizens, these groups tend to move towards dense forests out of desperation, cutting down foliage for farming land and hunting wild animals for sustenance. Additionally, these groups are commonly subject to exploitation by the palm oil industry. Men, women, and even children in poor areas of Asia are forced to work on palm oil plantations, and those that are paid are not given healthcare, job protections, or even enough money to survive.
Can Palm Oil be Avoided?
Palm oil is of specific concern because of how pervasive it is in most products around the world. The substance is in about 50% of all packaged goods.
Unfortunately, as the chemical has so many names, it’s near impossible to identify by reading the back of a product. The vast majority don’t even use the term “palm” on the ingredient label. The substance is often processed into substances with chemical names like:
- Sodium Laureth Sulphate
- Stearic Acid
- Sodium dodecyl Sulphate
- Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye
You can view the full list here.
It can be difficult for the average non-chemist to determine whether or not they’re using their money to fund deforestation in rainforests.
Unfortunately, it’s both versatile and better than a great variety of substances. It’s more efficient and cheaper to grow than many other crops, it gives products a smoother feel, and it even yields more suds than many alternatives!
Can Palm Oil be Farmed Sustainably?
Palm oil can be - and already is being farmed sustainably in some cases. The issue is identifying which farm your palm oil is coming from. You can be certain that palm oil is sustainably grown if the packaging says that it is RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified. The organization investigates all sectors of palm oil production when considering a product, so this certification is a safe source to find information.
Additionally, products that use sustainable palm oil usually advertise that they do so and make it clear that they are, indeed using palm oil. Next time you pick up a jar of peanut butter, check brands like MaraNatha and Once Again to get a good feel for how those companies advertise their sustainable palm oil use.
Can I do Anything to Reduce the Demand for Palm Oil?
The best way to help reduce the amount of palm oil use is to reduce the number of processed goods you purchase. Before your next shopping trip, take some time to investigate which brands in your store have pledged to be free of palm oil. To start you off, I found a decent list at productswithoutpalmoil.com that includes brands for food, cleaners, and personal care that use alternatives.
Whenever possible, cook your own food from raw ingredients. Palm oil is frequently found in breakfast cereals, pre-baked goods, and peanut butter products. Of course, this isn’t possible for everyone, especially those that live in food deserts. If you do live in such a place, Medium writer Aria Dailee has a great article on alleviating food insecurity that I recommend.
Another way to help reduce the use of palm oil is to make your own cleaning and beauty products. If you love a good DIY project, Good Housekeeping has an excellent article that gives instructions on how to make different sorts of cleaners with simple ingredients. On top of avoiding palm oil, this is a great way to save money!
Finally, you can advocate for better regulations on food labels in your communities, towns, state, and country. Your voice matters, and raising awareness on this issue can help save the most biodiverse parts of our planet from being destroyed.