What It Is
Palm oil is basically what its name suggests: a vegetable oil derived from the pulp of the fruit of certain palm trees and plants, primarily the African oil palm which originated near Angola and Gambia. A different but related ingredient that you may also find on ingredients lists is palm kernel oil, which is derived from the kernel–not pulp–of the same fruit. On a basic level, palm oil is a highly saturated vegetable fat, and its popularity derives from its low cost of production. But it’s important to ask: why is it so inexpensive?
Where It’s Found
It would take less time to answer the question, where is it not found? The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) reports that palm oil can be found in roughly half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket. Palm oil is especially popular in food products such as chocolate, margarine, pizza dough, cookies, and bread, and personal care products such as lipstick, shampoo, and soap.
Why It’s Bad
It would take less time to answer the question, how is it not bad? To begin, rainforests are deforested en masse in order to make room for palm oil plantations. Rainforests–often called the lungs of the earth–are already greatly depleted worldwide, which has lead to the endangerment and extinction of a wide variety of plants and animals. This leads to the second major concern surrounding palm oil: its link to the endangerment of orangutans, rhinos, and tigers, among others. Each of these animals are already listed as endangered and face the possibility of becoming extinct within our lifetime. Orangutans–primarily found in Sumatra, which is one of the largest exporters of palm oil–currently have an estimated population of 100,000, which is a sharp drop from the 288,500 recorded in 1973.
Even if you think palm oil’s affect on the environment is bad enough, you still need to know its affect on human beings. In the process of clearing these rainforests, palm oil producers not only displace the animals, but also the people indigenous to the land they’re destroying. The creation of these palm oil farms robs the Indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia, among others, of their land and livelihoods without their consultation, which violates the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. You may wonder, do the palm oil plantations offer the Indigenous peoples a mode of employment? The answer is yes, but in reality, this answers the question of why palm oil is so cheap. Palm oil producers have continuously been found guilty of multiple crimes against humanity, including child labour, underpaid work, hazardous working conditions, and more. In sum, the production of palm oil is bad for the environment, animals, Indigenous people, and labourers.
Realistically speaking, palm oil is next to impossible to avoid completely. While I have personally weeded it out of some products, including my makeup and chocolate of choice (bye, Nestlé and Ferrero Rocher!), it still can be found in my margarine and other household items. To boycott it as much as possible, WWF has created a list of the varying ways palm oil may appear in an ingredients list, which I will provide below. WWF also provides a small light at the end of the tunnel: palm oil can be produced sustainably, as long as it meets certain standards. Such standards can include not destroying any more forests and just using the farms already in place, and adhering to humane working standards. If you look for the RSPO or Green Palm label (both can be found on their website in the links below), you can rest assured that your product contains ethical palm oil. You can also check out the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to learn about initiatives surrounding the sustainable production of palm oil and how you can be a part of the movement.
Ingredients That Can 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