In recent years there’s been much discussion about the ethical implications of using palm oil in products. However, many people know little about what palm oil is and why there’s so much controversy surrounding it. Today we’re going to shed some light on the matter and explain how to avoid palm oil in the future.
What is palm oil?
The ingredient palm oil is a type of vegetable oil grown initially from the Elaeis guineensis tree in West Africa. In contrast, people can now find it growing primarily in Southeast Asia, with Malaysia and Indonesia producing most of the world’s supply. The oil can be produced in two ways, either as crude palm oil or palm kernel oil. The latter is made by crushing and roasting the kernel (the white stone) in the middle of the fruit, while crude palm comes from squeezing the fruit’s pulp.
What products contain palm oil?
The WWF reports that more than half of American products contain palm oil, and numbers appear similar in the UK, so even if you’re unfamiliar with the fruit, or the oil, you will likely find it in a surprising amount of your purchases. The oil has many unique properties that make it highly desirable, such as oxidation resistance that boosts the shelf life of products. Due to its unique fatty acid composition, it’s also inexpensive for the oil to be fractionated – a process that separates it into different consistencies – which brings a variety of new uses such as keeping margarine spreadable, keeping chocolate spreading on bars from melting, and as shortening for cakes and pastries.
As well as its use in food, it’s also wildly popular in many household products such as soap, detergent, shampoo and even lipstick – if you are trying to avoid palm oil, it feels like there’s no escaping it.
Why avoid palm oil?
While the fruit is extremely versatile in its use, the biggest reason for its adoption amongst companies is how cheap it is to grow. An extensive report by the Guardian states that it can grow well in even poor quality soil, which means less soil preparation, reducing cost. Alongside this, the tree also has the highest yield per acre out of any oilseed crop.
Because of its low-cost, high yield production, plantations have overextended across certain countries, with 86% of the world’s palm oil grown in Indonesia and Malaysia.
To make space for these plantations, unfortunately, means the loss of many forests in the areas, resulting in Palm Oil being one of the critical reasons for deforestation.
Deforestation, in turn, leads to the loss of habitat for both plant life and wildlife, with the already endangered species of Orangutan of Rhino, to name a few, being even closer to extinction. Local and indigenous communities are also losing much of their ancestral land without the resources or any tangible means of pushing back against the corporations encroaching their territory.
The process of deforestation also has significant consequences when it comes to the production of carbon emissions. As a result, Indonesia temporarily beat America in greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. Due to this process, one study believes that palm oil biodiesel results in 98% more emissions than its fossil-fuel equivalents, largely defeating the point of being renewable.
Is palm oil vegan?
While many vegans will stay away from Palm Oil due to its negative associations with animal welfare, as it comes from a fruit, it is safe for vegans to eat. The Vegan Society explains their stance on the issue by stating, “In itself, palm oil is a vegetable product which does not need to involve the (ab)use of animals, and therefore is suitable for vegans.”
It’s a complicated issue, and whether you permit it in your foods likely depends on your reasons for veganism, such as whether you chose for health reasons or ethical concerns.
For those who wish to stay away from the ingredient, it can be a tricky process due to labelling laws in the EU. While foods using palm oil must be labelled, it isn’t the case for palm oil derivatives, meaning you can inadvertently support the Palm Oil industry through the hundreds of ingredients that contain it.
Can palm oil be sustainably produced?
Many of the industry practices surrounding palm oil production are bad for the local ecosystem due to loss of habitat for wildlife. Still, some steps are being taken by some businesses to make the process more sustainable. This means growing palm oil in a way that minimises deforestation while disrupting the life of the locals as little as possible, and there are a variety of groups and policies created over the years to try and enforce this approach.
Buckling under public pressure, a ‘No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation’ commitment (commonly known as NDPE policy) has been enforced by much of the agricultural industry to reduce deforestation and protect the local communities.
There’s a concern that disavowing palm oil will just see the same issues perpetuated in other commodities, so the best chance of making long-term change is to hold the entire industry to this NDPE standard. While still a significant problem, we’ve seen some success with its implementation, with 84% of all palm oil entering Europe now covered by NDPE policy.
As well as NDPE policy, a non-profit organisation known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has established a network of businesses that follow their Sustainability guidelines in exchange for RSPO verification, offering access to sustainable oil from RSPO certified sellers. The 8 RSPO principles listed below shows the emphasis on supporting the biodiversity of the local community with new plantings.
How to avoid palm oil in foods & find palm oil-free products
Since palm oil can be a cheap alternative to butter, you can commonly see it used in:
As mentioned earlier, it often appears under ingredient names such as ‘Palmitic Acid’ or even simply ‘Vegetable oil’, so it can be hard to know what products use palm oil.
For non-food recommendations, this list posted by The Ethical Consumer is a helpful resource for finding palm oil Free Products such as shampoo or perfume. Thanks to the growing public interest in alternative ingredients, more and more companies to choose from, such as Friendly Soap, Lucy Bee, Caurnie and Conscious Skincare, all are offering palm oil free soaps. Companies that use palm oil from sustainable sources are also listed to give more options.
While a surprising amount of products contain palm oil and can include them in their ingredients list in crafty ways, we hope this guide has helped explain the controversy surrounding this issue.
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