In the last couple of years, palm oil has jumped to become a major consumer concern but there is a lot of misinformation or lack of clarity on the issue of its use. This post sets out what palm oil is and why it is a cause for concern but also what the advantages of this product are over other alternatives. We also set out what to look for if you are trying to avoid it.
What is palm oil and what’s the problem with it?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil which comes from the fruit of palm oil trees (Elaeis guineensis). Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global palm oil supply, but there are 42 other countries which also produce it.
Essentially, the problem with this product is its usefulness. It is in close to 50% of the packaged products in supermarkets, from pizza, doughnuts, biscuits, bread, margarine and chocolate to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, soaps, candles, body creams and lipstick. It is also commonly found in animal feed and used as a biofuel in many parts of the world (but not the UK). The reason it is is found in so many different products is because it has some very desirable properties.
• Semi-solid at room temperature which gives a spreadable texture to products
• Resistant to oxidation so gives products a longer shelf life
• Stable at high temperatures and gives fried products a crispy, crunchy texture
• Odourless and colourless, so doesn’t alter the smell or look of food
• Considered a ‘healthier’ oil than trans-fats
• The cost of production is much lower than alternative oils, making it a cheaper ingredient
Worldwide production of palm oil has been steadily increasing, with annual production between 1995 and 2015 going from 15.2 million tonnes to 62.6 million tonnes. Plantations to produce this oil account for 10% of permanent global cropland. Globally, each person consumes an average of 8kg of this oil every year. This consumption is centered in Asia, with India, China and Indonesia accounting for nearly 40% of all palm oil consumed worldwide where it is used in cooking.
It is imporant to note however that palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Globally, this oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land. To get the same amount of oil from other sources, such as soybean or coconut oil, would require between four and 10 times more land, leading to more deforestation and threatening more habitats and species.
Despite this, demand for palm oil is continuing to grow. This requires land and therefore leads to deforestation. This deforestation destroys the habitats of already endangered species, including the high profile orangutan as well as thousands others. Furthermore, many of Indonesia’s forests grow in deep, swampy peat, which stores huge amounts of carbon. Deforestation of these areas leads to draining of this habitat, making it very flammable, releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In addition to the environmental concerns, there are often serious social issues with palm oil production, including exploitation of workers and use of child labour.
What can we do about it?
As mentioned above, over 40% of palm oil produced is consumed in India, China and Indonesia, so the changes we can make here in the UK can only have a limited impact. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our bit! Here are some suggestions as to how to avoid this product and its derivatives.
1. Do more home cooking. I have never seen a recipe listing palm oil as an ingredient. Here in the UK, this product is predominantly in processed foods so if we can do more cooking from scratch we can all reduce our use of it.
2. Choose palm oil which has been produced sustainably. This is incredibly difficult but some efforts are being made to improve the situation by the industry. The most notable, was the creation of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which was formed in 2004. This body sets standards of best practice for the production and sourcing of palm oil. The RSPO represents the largest, independent, third-party standard for the more sustainable production of palm oil. The aim is to provide consumers with the confidence that the oil produced protects the environment and the local communities who depend upon it for their livelihoods. The UK Government has set a commitment for 100% of the palm oil use in the UK to be from sustainable sources. In 2016, 75% of the total palm oil imports to the UK were considered sustainable. The RSPO is considered the most robust of several certification systems but the vast majority of palm oil is traced only as far as the mill where it is processed. Mills can receive oil from a number of different producers and a product can earn a ‘certified sustainable’ label even if 99% of the oil it includes comes from freshly deforested land. So, as with all suggestions, this isn’t a perfect fix.
3. Avoid products containing palm oil. This is incredibly difficult but not impossible. Palm Oil Investigations lists more than 200 common ingredients in food and home and personal care products containing this product, only about 10% of which include the word palm. Since 2014, labelling regulations in the EU have required food products to clearly indicate that they contain palm oil but it can still sometimes be difficult to identify. It can be listed under any of the following names:
a. Vegetable oil
b. Vegetable fat
c. Palm kernel
d. Palm kernel oil
e. Palm fruit oil
k. Strearic acid
l. Elaeis guineensis
m. Palmitic acid
n. Palm stearine
o. Palmitoyl oxostearamide
p. Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
q. Sodium laureth sulfate
r. Sodium lauryl sulfate
s. Sodium kernelate
t. Sodium palm kernelate
u. Sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate
v. Hydrated palm glycerides
w. Etyl palmitate
x. Octyl palmitate
y. Palmityl alcohol
So it’s really difficult for consumers to avoid palm oil, even when we look for it.
And as mentioned above, avoiding palm oil comes with its own issues as alternative crops (such as soybean or coconut) would require significantly more land for the same level of production. WWF and Greenpeace both call for the use of sustainable palm oil in products rather than a boycott of the product all together.
4. Ask retailers for palm oil free products. As a retailer ourselves, we get lots of questions about palm oil and which of our products contain it. Where we can, we stock products which do not contain palm oil, for example our soap bars, refillable shampoos and conditioners, chocolates, etc. And where our products do contain this oil, we always make sure it is certified by the RSPO. Companies are very sensitive to issues that give their products a bad name, so inquiring with staff and contacting manufacturers can make a real difference. A great example of this is Iceland. This supermarket pledged to remove all palm oil from its own-brand foods by the end of 2018. Sadly, indicating perhaps the pervasiveness of this ingredient in modern life, Iceland found it impossible to fulfil this and ended up removing its branding from foods containing palm oil rather than removing the ingredient from its foods.
5. Choose to consume products which are produced locally, where buyers are able to witness the production process and can demand that it occurs in line with their values. When production occurs out of sight, it is difficult to get buyers to care.