Understanding: Palm Oil

In an interview with the Ecologist last week, one of my favourite green cleaning brands, Ecover, revealed their use of algal oil (a synthetic biology oil) in replacement of palm oil. This sparked my curiosity. Why would a company who pride themselves on using “plant and mineral based ingredients…without those chemical nasties” switch from naturally grown Palm oil to a genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredient? We have all heard of the issues surrounding palm oil, but is it really that bad?

So I did a little bit of digging (lazy girl style) to get to the bottom of this natural, but controversial oil; and made a few discoveries of my own very close to home…

So what exactly is palm oil?

Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit. It’s grown largely on the African oil palm tree, though they can generally flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant; such as Asia, North America, and South America.

Palm kernal

What is it used for?

Palm oil is a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil. Like coconut oil, it is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats and contains absolutely no cholesterol.

Here in the West, however, we are more likely to be familiar with it as an ingredient in food, cosmetics and cleaning products; from margarine, chocolate and oven chips, to toothpaste, make-up and washing detergents. In fact, awareness charity Say no to palm oil claims that palm oil can be found in 40-50% of household products in the United States, Canada, Australia and England!

Why is it controversial?

Well, unfortunately – despite its natural origins – the palm oil industry isn’t particularly good for the environment; as an area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared every hour, to make way for its production. Deforestation not only contributes significantly to climate change, but takes away the homes of both wildlife –including orangutans, tigers, sun bears, bearded pigs – and local indigenous people.

This is especially detrimental to the future of our direct ancestors, the Orangutans; who share 97 per cent of their DNA with humans, and now face imminent extinction because of palm oil production.Oil-palm-plantation-in-Sarawak.-Photo-by-Mattias-Klum

The biggest issue with palm oil seems to be the shear amount now in demand; with 50 million tons being produced annually to supply over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production. That’s a lot of oil, when it appears to be so damaging to the environment! Research by The Independent found that 32 out of 62 of Britain’s top foods contain palm oil; yet none of the manufacturers could prove their supply is “sustainable”.  In fact, with 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia, most of it appears not to use sustainable measures.

palm oil destruction

What about Sustainable Palm oil?

Well, there is such a thing as sustainable palm oil; though how sustainable it actually is, is hotly debated.  The theory is that sustainable palm oil aims to approach production in a way which causes minimal – or no – impact on deforestation or the indigenous people. One of the largest sustainability-focused organisations within the palm oil sector – the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) – aims to unite stakeholders from all sectors of the palm oil industry; in a bid to develop and monitor the environmental and economic impact of the palm industry.

Sustainable palm oil

However Say no to palm oil points out that RSPO’s standards “…do not ban deforestation or destruction of peatlands for the development of oil palm plantations”. They have also come under fire in the past, when RSPO members were found to be relying on palm oil suppliers who explicitly destroy rainforests. In fact, some argue that – even if not consciously – the RSPO actually risks “creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil”; which may inadvertently justify the expansion of the palm oil industry. I smell a can of worms!

So should we avoid it altogether?

On the face of it, I would say avoiding palm oil would be a harder job than being a vegan at a hog roast party! Palm oil really is in A LOT of things; most of which isn’t clearly labelled as such. Unless you plan to go extreme green and avoid most chocolate, margarine, shampoo, pizza, cereal, soap, bread, washing power, mascara, saving foam, biscuits….(the list goes on), you can’t really avoid it. And don’t think you can buy “green” products instead…because palm oil is in most of them too!

But there are few things you can do to minimise your impact, or at least help, which really don’t involve too much time or effort:

  1. Be aware & reduce your consumption. Have a scout around your home for obvious palm oil labelling and make it a challenge to swap those items for ones using alternative ingredients.
  2. Make your voice heard. Sign petitions, donate a few pounds or support campaigns to help those most affected by the palm oil industry.
  3. Take the challenge. Sign up for the 28 day palm Oil challenge coming up soon.

palm oil challenge

Additional Reading:





4 thoughts on “Understanding: Palm Oil”

  1. Also Palm oil in its raw state is poisonous to dogs and was recently found washed up in Devon and Cornwall on the beaches proving to be fatal,


  2. So I’ve tried so hard to give up palm oil, I want to so bad. The only thing stoping me is that I have an allergy to cottonseed oil. And basically anything that dose not have palm oil has cottonseed oil. This post is really great though, Thanks.


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