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The Truth About Palm Oil

"Palm oil is destroying our planet!" Maybe you've read a headline like this and wondered, "What's the big deal?" I know when I first heard about it I didn't understand what the fuss was about. If you're wondering what palm oil is, what the problem is with it, and what you can do about it on a personal level, I'm here to break if all down for you. What is palm oil? Palm oil is an edible oil that comes from the fruit of palm oil trees. It often goes by many different names which can make it difficult to spot on products. These particular types of palm trees were originally found in Africa but were brought to South-East Asia over 100 years ago. This is the area where we get most of our palm oil today. What should I look for on products to know if I’m buying palm oil? Unfortunately palm oil is often hidden under different names, ones you may not even recognize. But this handy list from Rainforest Action Network will help you start finding palm oil in products.

  • PKO – Palm Kernel Oil

  • PKO fractionations: Palm Kernel Stearin (PKs); Palm Kernel Olein (PKOo)

  • PHPKO – Partially hydrogenated Palm Oil

  • FP(K)O – Fractionated Palm Oil

  • OPKO – Organic Palm Kernel Oil

  • Palmitate – Vitamin A or Asorbyl Palmitate (NOTE: Vitamin A Palmitate is a very common ingredient in breakfast cereals and we have confirmed 100% of the samples we’ve investigated to be derived from palm oil)

  • Palmate

  • Sodium Laureth Sulphate (Can also be from coconut)

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also be from ricinus oil)

  • Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)

  • Elaeis Guineensis

  • Glyceryl Stearate

  • Stearic Acid

  • Chemicals which contain palm oil

  • Steareth -2

  • Steareth -20

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate

  • Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)

  • Hydrated palm glycerides

  • Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)

  • Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (names with palmitate at the end are usually derived from palm oil, but as in the case of Vitamin A Palmitate, very rarely a company will use a different vegetable oil)

If it’s edible, why is there so much negative talk about it? The issue with palm oil isn’t with the oil itself, it’s with the growing of the plant that is troublesome. Palm oil production causes deforestation of many biodiverse forests. And because palm oil is in so many products these days, more forests keep getting cut down to make room for more palm oil plants. This causes the loss of habitats to a variety of species, including already endangered species. It’s not just the loss of forests and animals that is so concerning, although that is very upsetting. There is also the fact that when we cut down forests, we are releasing the carbon dioxide once stored in them and the soil. Monocropping land (growing only one crop in a location) depletes the rich soil and causes soil degradation and lessens its ability to capture and hold carbon dioxide. Here's another problem - Palm oil produces more oil per area of land than all other vegetable oils, so it is incredibly efficient and has become cheap and plentiful. Why is this a problem? Cheap and plentiful oil makes it enticing to companies because they can get it at such a low cost. But what about the cost to our forests? Of the 44 million acres of palm oil fields worldwide, 26.4 million used to be forest that was cut for palm oil purposes. Though we have seen a drop in deforestation due to palm oil, at least in Indonesia, we still need to fight for forests!

Source: Our World in Data - Austin, K.G., Schwantes, A., Gu, Y., & Kasibhatla, P.S. (2019). What causes deforestation in Indonesia?

So why not just boycott it? It would be really easy to just say, “Let’s just not buy it and they will stop producing it.” But there’s a problem with that. Because palm oil plants are so efficient in producing oils as compared to all other vegetable oils (see first graph below), it would actually be detrimental to our planet to switch from palm oil to a different oil. In the second chart below you can see how much MORE land we’d need if we switched from palm oil to other oil varieties.

Source: Our World in Data – based on data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Source: Our World in Data – based on dada from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization

So now we find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. We can’t stop using palm oil because it could cause destruction of forests to use other oils, but if we keep buying it we are going to cause destructions of our forests.

What should we do? - Choose companies that sustainably source palm oil and have the certification to prove it. *One issue with certified sustainable products is whether they are truly sustainable. Some companies get badges to “prove” they are providing a sustainable product or it has a sustainable ingredient but in actuality the badge doesn’t mean much because of lack of oversight (this can be seen in "sustainable fish"). This is a hotly debated topic. For more information on Certified Sustainable Palm Oil we recommend visiting

- Vote with your money – don’t buy products with palm oil that were not sustainability certified - Write to companies who don’t source their oil sustainably and tell them they should. - Write or call your elected official and tell them that this topic is important to you.(Check out our article - How To Write A Letter to Your Elected Official)




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