When we think about palm oil, it’s nearly impossible to ignore what it does to the environment. Because palm oil is so cheap to grow and harvest, some countries are finding that they can’t clear land quick enough to grow it. So, rainforests are getting cleared fast by being burnt down, which releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While this is happening, orangutans and Sumatran tigers and loads of other animals are getting closer and closer to extinction because their homes are being turned into palm oil plantations.
But what’s that got to do with us? It should be pretty easy to avoid palm oil, right? Well, if we look closely at the labels on our food, we’ll find that palm oil is in nearly every single processed food we look at. Below are some simple ways to avoid palm oil, which is actually pretty bad for us humans too.
What is palm oil
Palm oil is made from the pulp of the palm oil fruit. These days, it’s the second most used oil in the world, coming after soybean oil. It’s in over half of every processed food you can think of, like chocolate, chips, bread, biscuits, ice-cream, margarine, and many more. It really does mean that the guilt-free pre-made snack is very hard to find.
Palm Oil is also used in personal care and cleaning products. It mainly goes under the name of Sodium Laureth Sulphite or Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS).
What countries is palm oil grown in
Indonesia—including Indonesian islands Borneo and Sumatra—and Malaysia are the biggest palm oil producers in the world.
Thailand, Columbia, Nigeria, PNG and Ecuador are the next largest producers. African states such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Congo are emerging as new, and fast expanding, palm oil producers.
What are the environmental and sustainability concerns
Rainforests are being cleared for palm oil plantations. Palm oil corporations have been found to clear rainforests by logging, and then set off huge, uncontrolled fires to clear the remaining land. The fires cause air pollution for the locals, and destroy the homes of many animals and wildlife species.
The islands of Borneo and Sumatra are home to thousands of animals and plants that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. If palm oil productions keeps growing at the rate it is now, orangutans will become extinct in twenty years.
The orangutan isn’t the only animal facing extinction because of the production of palm oil. There are only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, and other threatened animals include the Sumatran rhino, Bornean gibbon, Asian elephant, and hundreds of others.
When rainforests are cleared, they leave behind boggy, wet peat that sends potent methane into the atmosphere. Peat methane is 23 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. It’s thought that peat methane from cleared rainforests makes 15 per cent of all damaging emissions into the atmosphere.
Palm oil plantations are sprayed with dangerous pesticides, such as paraquat, that leeches into the waterways. Also, massive amounts of the by-products of palm oil processing are being dumped into the water. This means that the water of the local community turns brown and slimy and can’t be used.
How is it labelled
Palm oil is simply labelled as ‘vegetable oil’ on many foods. Despite lobbying, the labelling of palm oil isn’t compulsory. We have to be on our toes if we want to avoid palm oil because it’s got more names than someone on the run from Interpol. It’s labelled as:
- Sodium Laureth Sulphate or Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SDS)
- Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
- Stearic Acid
- Palm Oil Kernel
- Palm Acid
- Palm Olein
- Palm Stearine
- Cocoa Butter Equivalent (CBE)
- Cocoa Butter Substitute (CBS)
Some additives and agents can be made from palm oil. These are numbers 422, 430 to 436, 470 to 478, 481 to 483 and 493 to 495.
Personal Care and Cleaning Products
Palm oil also hides under these names when used in personal care and cleaning products:
- Elaeis guineensis
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Lyceryl Stearate
What are the health concerns
The Australian Heart Foundation lists palm oil as being high in saturated fat (45 to 60 per cent), which contributes to high cholesterol and thickening of the arteries and increases the risk of heart disease.
Lobby groups for the palm oil industry claim that palm oil actually stops cancers. They claim that palm oil contains tocotrienols (which is a type of vitamin E). It’s true that laboratory testing on animals has shown that tocotrienols inhibit strokes, tumours and some cancers. The truth is, during processing, the vitamin E in palm oil loses nearly all of its nutrients. We would have to drink a whole cup of crude palm oil a day to get our daily requirements of vitamin E. If that doesn’t turn your stomach, then nothing will.
Who is doing something about it
In 2004, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is an independent group of producers, sellers, buyers, investors and conservationists. They began a certification system for sustainable palm oil.
The first sustainable palm oil was sold in 2008. Certification is voluntary and follows a raft of suggested practices. The RSPO will certify a palm oil producer if they legally own their land, don’t flatten rainforests for plantations, make water protection and soil nutrition plans, avoid damage to endangered species’ habitats, don’t burn land for land-clearing, keep records of fertiliser use, conduct formal training and build roads, drainage and irrigation.
This all sounds pretty good, but the RSPO, while well meaning, are also compromised. Only seventeen producers are certified, and nearly all of them have had complaints made against them that they aren’t following RSPO guidelines.
Critics say that the organisation is a ‘greenwash’ where palm oil companies can hide behind a respectable sustainability certification. The RSPO believes that they are taking a step in the right direction.
Best source of palm oil
About 6.4 per cent of all palm oil is certified, but it’s pretty hard to find anywhere in Australia that uses certified oil. The WWF made up a scorecard of companies who are committed to using certified oil, and Unilever and Cadbury’s came out on top. Yet, it might be a good idea to look at your ethical shopping guide to see how you want to go on with that.
The best we can suggest is that you buy anything certified by the Soil Association. It’s the UK’s organic certifying body that has a mandate that protects against clearing ‘primary habitat’. They specifically set that up so that anyone who buys Soil Association approved products can be assured that they have guarded against the environmental destruction of palm oil.
How can you avoid palm oil
When you’re faced with walls of products in the supermarket, and outside, how can you be sure you’re not buying palm oil?
You’ll have to learn a few tricks because the labelling is so unclear. If the label says the product contains ‘vegetable oil’, then look in the nutrition information panel to see if it has a saturated fat amount over 50 per cent. If the oil has over a 50 per cent saturated fat amount then it is most likely palm oil or a derivative. This option is not foolproof because saturated fats don’t have to be declared on labels.
When you’re buying snack foods like biscuits, chocolate, chips, pizzas or ice cream, have a look to see if the label says it’s got margarine in it. If it includes margarine, then it’s probably been made from palm oil. Nearly all margarines contain palm oil, even healthier brands.
Look at the list of names that palm oil goes under and avoid all products with those ingredients in them. Be aware that some products, particularly personal care products, may advertise that they are SLS free. Just turn the package around and have a good look at the ingredients to be sure you’re not buying palm oil.
For more information:
- www.orangutans.com.au has a comprehensive list of palm oil free foods in Australia;
- The Australian Orangutan Project is a not-for-profit organisation, which supports orangutan conservation, rainforest protection, local community partnerships and the rehabilitation and reintroduction of displaced orangutans back to the wild www.orangutan.org.au;
- The Palm Oil Action group has a list of CEOs of supermarkets, food producers and buyers and government ministers to petition, and a video about the destruction of wildlife in Borneo. See: www.palmoilaction.org.au
- The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. See: www.rspo.org;
- Melbourne Zoo is campaigning to stop the production of palm oil, see: www.zoo.org.au/palmoil;
- At WWF you can donate to help save the orangutans. See: www.wwf.org.au;
- Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest and Wildlife by Drs Ellie Brown and Michael F. Jacobson is a thorough and thoughtful guide: www.cspinet.org/palm/PalmOilReport.pdf;
- The Burning Season (2008) is a documentary about burning forests in Indonesia for palm oil plantations, and is narrated by Hugh Jackman.