Palm Oil: The Secret Ingredient with an Environmental Cost

Image Credit: Ananya Majesh

By: Samara Zuckerbrod & Sally Jung

What do Nutella, bread and soap all have in common? Their ingredients lists seem like they would be vastly different. And while I like Nutella and bread and soap separately, I would hesitate to combine them. Is it that you can eat all three? No, I haven’t eaten soap since I was a kid … 

The truth is that they all contain palm oil! Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that is produced by pressing the fruit, or kernel, of the palm oil plant. Other products with palm oil include detergent, shampoo and instant noodles, as well as many other products, from food items to lipstick to household cleaners. 

If you’ve taken a look at the ingredient list(s) while shopping, you probably didn’t know it used palm oil because a lot of companies don’t clearly label it. According to the World Wildlife Organization, palm oil and its derivatives can be listed as many other names including:

“Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearin, Palmityl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Ethyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.” 

Take a look at your bread, soap, detergent, shampoo, instant noodles and other products around your home and see if you can find any of those names in your products. How many of those names do you recognize? 

So, why is it that you can find palm oil in so many products that you purchase? First off, its chemical and molecular composition lend itself to being a super versatile ingredient; it blends well with other oils and base ingredients, serves as a foaming agent and can be used as an adhesive. The crop can be grown year-round, making it possible to keep up with great and growing demand for palm oil. Furthermore, it has high crop efficiency as you get the highest yield per hectare of any oilseed crop. Thus, palm oil is a cheaper substitute for other more expensive, less efficient oils. 

Image Credit: Lily Hernandez

Although palm oil may seem like the solution to many production problems, it comes with its own downsides. Since it is so efficient and versatile, the demand for palm oil has gone way up in recent years. To meet market pressure, companies and farmers have resorted to excessive deforestation of undeveloped land in order to create oil palm plantations. Besides decreasing the biodiversity of these regions, the carbon dioxide (CO2) released from the slash-and-burn process of clearing land contributes to climate change. 

Additionally, in Malaysia and Indonesia, where 85% of the world’s palm oil is cultivated, communities, villages and Indigenous people are either being pushed out of their land for palm oil development or pressured to assimilate to the standards of the palm oil industry. In certain communities, women are disproportionately affected by palm oil as they have unequal access to economic opportunities and resources, such as land. 

Currently, using products with palm oil is somewhat inescapable, but you can try to minimize the number of products you use that contain palm oil and its derivatives. Furthermore, look for products that have the RSPO label, which indicates the palm oil was harvested more sustainably, or buy from companies that follow sustainable methods and ethical practices, such as Ferrero. The World Wildlife Organization says, “Palm oil can be produced in a responsible manner that respects the environment and the communities where it is commonly grown.” Moving forward, we need to grow our crops responsibly and ethically, with our planet and its people in mind. 

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