September 20, 2019

Palm oil: What you need to know

palm forest

The amount of palm oil produced globally has dramatically increased in recent years along with the negative attention placed on this controversial ingredient. Here’s what you need to know about this product you are in some way or another using every single day.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil made from the fruit of oil palm trees. Over 70 million tons is produced annually and at least 85% of it comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. 

What is palm oil used for?

There is a huge demand for palm oil because of its versatility and suitability in a wide variety of applications. The WWF estimates that around 50% of supermarket products contain palm oil.  We all use palm oil everyday – it’s an ingredient in cosmetics like shampoo, lipstick, soap, and deodorant. Its neutral taste and lack of odour makes it an ideal ingredient in foods as it doesn’t affect its smell or taste. It is found in many packaged food products, like frozen pizzas, pastries, ready meals, chocolate, biscuits, instant noodles, and margarine. Unlike other oils it is resistant to oxidation and can lengthen a products shelf life, and it is also stable at high temperatures. 

Why is it such an issue?

Palm oil production is associated with some major environmental and social issues. Oil palm trees grow best in warm and humid climates of rainforests. Consequently huge tracts of tropical rainforests are cleared in order to make room for the growing demand for oil palm tree plantations. This wide-scale deforestation causes a loss of biodiversity as iconic endangered species like Orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, and Sumatran tigers lose their habitat and are pushed closer to extinction. Also, some local indigenous communities have been forcibly displaced in the past to make room for plantations, and there have been reports of workers’ rights violations. 

What can you do to help?

The obvious answer is to boycott palm oil. However, it is such a valuable ingredient in many different products and can’t simply be taken out and replaced with another oil. Compared to other commonly used vegetable oils like coconut and soybean, palm oil is very efficient as it has a higher yield per hectare: it needs less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil. This makes palm oil the least expensive vegetable oil to produce in the world.

An easy way to avoid eating foods containing palm oil is to simply cook meals at home. Only processed foods contain palm oil, so cooking meals from scratch using fresh ingredients, like with our DayToDay boxes, rather than eating prepackaged meals means you’ll be consuming much less palm oil. 

Even by avoiding palm oil containing food products we will undoubtedly still use other products containing this ingredient, like cosmetics. You can choose to buy products made with sustainable palm oil. Look out for products with a RSPO certification logo on their label. The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil is the largest independent standard for sustainable production of palm oil. RSPO certified palm oil means the oil comes from a company that does not clear primary forest and provides fair working conditions and wages to workers.

Palm oil plantations causes habitat loss which threatens the Orangutang’s survival