Palm oil – wassup with that sh*t?

what is palm oil

Today’s post is a primer on palm oil, as a few people have asked about it recently. If you’re already up to speed on the orangutan-killing, ubiquitous and not-very-healthy oil of which we each consume around 6 kilos per annum,  no need to read on. But if you know someone who might be interested to know more, please share.

For those of you still with me, I shall try to keep this brief. There’s not a huge amount of ambiguity about the issues surrounding palm oil. Similar to BPA, it’s one of those things you should be aware of so you can take steps to do the right thing.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil-palm tree. Looks a little something like this:

oil palm fruit

photo credit: Rainforest Action Network via photopin cc

The two species of oil palm are native to Africa and South America, however the palm-oil industry thrives in south-east Asia where the plant was introduced. Malaysia and Indonesia now produce 85% of the world’s palm oil.

The palm oil we eat comes from the pulp of the fruit; oil extracted from the kernel is used mostly in cosmetics.

Say what? I don’t eat palm oil

Yeah, you do. If you eat processed foods, it’s likely you eat palm oil. And FYI, bread counts as a processed food. Palm oil is found in biscuits, breads, chips, chocolate, spreads and anywhere else you might see “vegetable oil” in the ingredients. It’s pretty super from a food manufacturer’s  point-of-view as it is more stable and lasts way longer on the shelf than butter or other vegetable oils, and it adds a thicker, creamier texture. According to WWF, palm oil is found in half of all packaged foods. Half!

And it’s not just in food items. As mentioned above, palm-kernel oil is also found in a wide range of personal care products such as shampoos and conditioners.

So what’s the problem with palm oil?

Well, there are a few things to consider. The first, and the reason for gratuitous use of extremely cute orangutan pictures, is that the palm-oil industry is responsible for mass deforestation in south-east Asia, systematically destroying the habitats of a number of endangered species, including tigers, pygmie elephants, sun bears and orangutans.

In addition to wiping out habitat, land-clearing in this area releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases by uncovering peat-land, not to mention the bulldozing and harvesting in what was once a rainforest. Human inhabitants are affected as well by the loss of biodiversity and the dust and smog created by deforestation.

As a product, palm oil is cheap and cheerful, and apparently not very good for us as it is very high in saturated fat. The fact it can be labelled as simply “vegetable oil” is another concern as palm oil is tucked into all kinds of foods you might think are healthy, such as rice crackers and even one supermarket-brand range for kids. Consumer watchdog Choice is calling for mandatory labelling so those with health issues can easily avoid the oil if they need to watch their saturated fat intake.

Should we avoid palm oil?

Argh. Tricky. Millions and millions of people rely on the palm oil industry to survive so simply boycotting the product itself would be problematic.

It is possible to produce palm oil sustainably, but in the countries where it’s grown, this is a hard sell. “So you want me to work just as hard and earn less for the sake of a few monkeys? Good luck with that.” Maybe they haven’t seen all the cute pictures. Instead, consumers (and any other powers that be that can be bothered) need to exert pressure on the food manufacturers, including and especially the big supermarkets, to commit to only purchasing sustainably produced palm oil.

At present around 15% of the world’s palm oil is coming from good sources, and the WWF believes there is plenty of land available and suitable for palm-oil plantations to grow without further deforestation. There is a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and many of the big companies around the world have signed up, promising to only source sustainable palm oil by 2015. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a talk-fest at the moment and there are concerns that this massive goal does not have the support on the ground to make it a reality.

Jeez. What do I do?

For now, the best thing you can do is be aware that there is this ingredient that has serious question marks over it and tell the manufacturers of your favourite chocolate biccie that you’re just not up for it. And when you here of a company committing to CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) be sure to give them the thumbs up. With social media these days, it’s really easy to make your voice heard, even by the big guys.

This great non-profit website has a comprehensive list of which products in Australia contain palm oil (here) and the organisation’s Facebook page has regular updates. And Penny at Wildlife Fun 4 Kids has made up a postcard you can send to food producers here asking them to kindly remove the oil or find a more sustainable source, thank you very much.

In the meantime, think about what you are eating, read the ingredients, do your research and say no to non-sustainable palm oil.

Were you aware of the palm oil problem? Does it concern you?



  1. Amy says

    Jo – this is such a fantastic post!! I’m ashamed to say I knew A LITTLE about this, but your post was so information and clear. So often these issues are really hard to follow, and then in the end you feel like saying “well, what can I do!?” You answered that. Thank you!! x
    Amy recently posted..Sunday Promise: No more mother guiltMy Profile

  2. Brenda says

    Thanks for spotlighting the palm oil problem.Sounds like if people avoid processed foods and mainstream beauty products, they’re sure to be safe from palm oil!


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