What is palm oil and why is it bad for the environment?

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Megan Murray
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Iceland is the first supermarket to announce it will stop using palm oil as an ingredient in all its own-brand food - here’s everything you need to know about the environmentally-destructive effects of palm oil production. 

You may have never really heard of the palm oil crisis. You might not have considered what palm oil is, how it’s made or how it’s used. But this common ingredient, which can be found in everything from food to cosmetics, is a huge problem for our planet.

With oil palm plantations currently covering more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface, the negative effects of the 66 million tons of palm oil we use annually range from deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions to the endangering of wild animals.

Despite all this, palm oil continues to be used in a vast range of products including soap, frozen pizza and make-up; avoiding headlines and going under the radar of consumers.

But earlier this month, supermarket Iceland made a stand against the damaging production of palm oil by vowing to stop using it as an ingredient in all of its own-brand products by the end of 2018. Because of its low world market price, this will undoubtedly be a costly and inconvenient move for the company, but it is the right one.  

Palm oil is made from the flesh of oil palm fruit.

Iceland credits campaigns by Greenpeace for alerting it to the environmental issues with using palm oil and prompting the store to take action.

BBC News reports that Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker, said: “Until such a time as there is genuinely sustainable palm oil that contains zero deforestation, we are saying no to palm oil.

“We think it’s the right thing to do.”

In order for others to follow Iceland’s lead, it’s essential that consumer knowledge and awareness are improved. We need to be aware of the detrimental effects of palm oil so that we can try to purchase less of it, and show supermarkets that this issue is important to consumers.

We’ve put together a guide explaining what palm oil is, what it is used for and why it’s bad for the planet, as well as helpful information on how to buy palm oil free products. 

What is palm oil?

An oil palm plantation in Sipitang, Sabah Borneo, Malaysia.

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil (similar to sunflower or rapeseed oil) made from the fruits of African oil palm trees. These trees originate from west and south-west Africa but were taken over to Indonesia and Malaysia in the late 19th century.

The best conditions for growth are humid rainforest areas but, as demand for palm oil has increased, farms have been created specially to grow it. Smaller family farms are called smallholders and larger operations are known as plantations. 

What are the environmental effects of palm oil? 

The production of palm oil is destroying beautiful rain forests like this. 

One devastating impact of palm oil production is deforestation. Large tracts of rainforest in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are continuously being destroyed to make space for more plantations. Not only does this mean the destruction of a huge number of trees but also the methods used to dispose of them such as fires release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and damaging our ozone.

Not only is producing palm oil bad for the environment, it also contributes to the extinction of several species of endangered animals that live in the humid temperatures where plantation owners build palm oil farms.

Orangutans, Borneo elephants and Sumatran tigers are among some of the animal species that are being pushed closer to extinction as their natural habitat is destroyed. 

There are also issues around the rights of indigenous people who inhabit the rain-forests, and have done for generations. Communities of people have been forced out of their homes to make way for plantations, with little regard for their human rights. 

Which products contain palm oil?

Palm oil is in a wide variety of products from laundry tablets to ice cream.  

Palm oil is so prevalent that it’s almost impossible to create a comprehensive list of every type of product that may contain it. The best thing to do if you want to be aware of how much palm oil you’re buying is to look through the labels of everything you purchase.

To give you an overall idea, though, here’s a list of products that you may not have realised contain palm oil:

  • Bread
  • Crisps
  • Margarine
  • Soap
  • Ice cream
  • Pizza bases
  • Instant noodles
  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate
  • Shampoo
  • Lipstick
  • Washing detergent 

What are other names for palm oil on labels?

Checking labels at the supermarket can help you cut back on how much palm oil you purchase. 

It can be difficult to correctly check that you’re not buying products that contain palm oil because of the plethora of different names used to describe it on labels. To help you get wise to these confusing tricks, here’s a list of other words that could be used to describe the presence of palm oil and names of ingredients that contain palm oil.

  • Vegetable Oil
  • Vegetable Fat
  • Palm Kernel
  • Palm Kernel Oil
  • Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate
  • Palmitate, Palmolein
  • Glyceryl
  • Stearate
  • Stearic Acid
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Palm Stearine
  • Palmitoyl Oxostearamide
  • Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Sodium Kernelate
  • Sodium Palm Kernelate
  • Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate
  • Hyrated Palm Glycerides
  • Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate
  • Palmityl Alcohol

 How to stop buying palm oil 

Using fresh produce is one way to avoid buying products that contain palm oil. 

After becoming aware of the detrimental effect that using palm oil has on the planet, you might be keen to find out ways to cut down on your consumption of it.

As well as thoroughly checking the labels of the products you buy, there are some other easy-to-remember ways to help you stop buying and using palm oil.

Environmental organisation Rainforest Rescue suggests cooking from scratch more often as a way of avoiding palm oil. As the oil appears in many processed foods, using fresh ingredients means you know exactly what you’re consuming - sunflower or olive oil are great palm oil cooking alternatives.

Palm oil is used for biofuel and therefore contributes to the vehicle emissions that damage our planet’s ozone. If you have a car, then walk, bike or use public transport where you can to cut down on your carbon footprint.

The organisation also says that speaking out is one of the most important ways to ensure a reduction in palm oil production. Whether it be on Twitter, through customer service or emailing companies directly, you can express your views and ask your retailers to stop using palm oil.

Online campaigns put pressure on retailers and policymakers. If this is an issue you’re passionate about, you can sign online petitions and give your support to campaigns

Palm oil free products 

Start a conversation with your friends about palm oil and spread the word. 

It can be really hard to find palm oil free versions of some of your favourite foods, but there are some supermarkets that do it better than others. Waitrose is known to offer quite a few alternatives, especially in the confectionery aisle.

The Ethical Consumer organisation has a list of biscuits, chocolate and chocolate spreads from Waitrose and Marks and Spencer that are palm oil free.

The best brands to choose when buying nut butters (peanut butter generally contains a lot of palm oil) are Meridian and Whole Earth.

Cereals that tend not to include palm oil (but always check the label of different flavours to be sure) are Crunchy Nut, Coco Pops and Nature Valley Crunchy Granola. Crisp brands Kettle and Tyrells have quite simplistic ingredient lists and also don’t use palm oil.

There are also some palm oil free brands that you can buy online, including Booja Booja, Divine, Montezuma and Seed & Bean, although they mostly sell chocolate.

Palm oil free household products are even harder to find at the supermarket, but you can buy things like laundry detergent and cleaning products online from ethical brands like Ecos.

Online retailer sells a selection of products from washing up liquid to room fragrance.

Educating yourself (as you just have done) and spreading the word to others is also an important part helping building awareness. 

Think most of your friends are unaware of the problems associated with palm oil or how to avoid it? Send them this article and equip them with the knowledge they need. 

Images: Getty Images