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Palm Oil: What It Is and Why You Should Avoid It

Palm Oil: What It Is and Why You Should Avoid It

Before you head out to purchase groceries, skin care products, or household cleaners, please read this article. Palm oil is found in 50% of all consumer goods from packaged foods and body lotions to shampoos and soaps. Palm oil imported to the United States alone has grown by 485% in the last ten years. Due to consumer demand (consumer purchases creating this demand), deforestation across the globe is wrecking havoc on the environment, wildlife and indigenous people who depend on the rainforest for survival. Oh, and by the way, it’s also affecting you directly.

First, what is palm oil?

Oil palm is held in the hand

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit. The palm fruit is originally from Western Africa, however, it can grow in any tropical area where heat and rainfall are abundant.

Why is there such a high demand for palm oil?

Oil palm biofuel biodiesel with test tubes on white background

Big companies love the versatility of palm oil because it’s inexpensive, shelf-stable, and can be used in everything from food to cosmetics to household cleaners, making it a very profitable ingredient. When the negative research emerged about the effects of trans fats in our food and on our health, companies quickly tried to find a solution to replace the trans fats with another ingredient that contained similar qualities. What did they replace it with? Yes, you guessed it, palm oil. It’s currently found in roughly half the packaged products sold in US grocery stores, including snack foods like ice cream, cookies, crackers, chocolate products, instant noodles, peanut butter, cereals, doughnuts and potato chips.

What makes palm oil so unacceptable?

Replanting oil plam at estate plantation

The palm oil industry is linked to major environmental issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses. Homes are often taken away from indigenous people in order to plant palm and, in some areas, palm oil plantations are linked to child slavery. Here is a not so fun fact: the land equivalent to 300 football fields is cleared every hour to support the palm oil industry.

This destruction is causing many species to face extinction. For example, the Sumatran elephant is losing its home due to palm oil plantations. It’s becoming more and more difficult for the elephant families to find food and water, making it impossible to survive. Could it be possible that your children or grandchildren may live in a world with no elephants? Orangutans are another species that suffer greatly from palm oil demand. Scientists estimate that orangutans could become extinct from nature in the next 20 years. With no rainforests available, the orangutans are forced to live in palm plantations where they are viewed as an annoyance and either shot or captured. Sadly, babies are ripped away from their moms and sold illegally to the wildlife trade. It is also estimated that the Sumatran tiger will be extinct within the next three years, again, due to palm oil. Can you imagine the earth without elephants, tigers or orangutans?

How does palm oil affect you?

Plantation worker watches as a truck unloads freshly harvested oil palm fruit bunches at a collection point.

Palm oil is not only a problem for the local rainforests. When rainforests are cleared, a significant amount of carbon pollution is released, making palm oil a major driver of human-induced climate change. As you know, we are all affected by climate change.

What about sustainable palm oil?

views of the oil palm plantation on the hill

There is palm oil that is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) who establishes criteria and policies to help reduce the negative impacts of palm oil plantations on the environment, animals, and communities. Companies who label their palm oil as sustainable must adhere to these criteria in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When they are properly applied, these criteria may help to minimize negative impacts. You can read more about the RSPO principles and criteria here.

What can you, as a consumer, do about this environmental, animal welfare, and human crisis? Read ingredients. If it says palm oil (including palm kernel or palm seed oil) put it back on the shelf. Your dollar has power. By not purchasing products made with palm oil, you are committing to preserve the rainforest, save wildlife, fight climate change, and be a voice for indigenous people who are treated unfairly on these plantations. By not purchasing a product with palm oil you are also not supporting a company who’s financial interests abrogate the interest of the planet and its species (including you). Individually, you can create influence and change simply by your purchasing choices.

If you’d like to take further action, visit the Rainforest Action Network to see how you can be more involved. Also, be sure to check out the Snack Food 20 to see how your favorite companies score on responsibility and integrity.

If you want to view two impactful videos on the issue, see below. Warning: keep tissues by your side.

Palm Oil: How Our Consumer Choices Affect Wildlife

Orangutan Asks Girl For Help In Sign Language

Please share and keep the conversation going. Let us know your thoughts and what you find in your food ingredients, household cleaners, and body care products.

About Nichole Dandrea

Nichole Dandrea-Russert, MS, RD is a dietitian, nutritionist, and yoga instructor who believes that eating plant-based whole foods are the foundation to healthy holistic living. She also believes that chocolate should be its own food group. She created nicobella organics chocolate to let people know that plant-based eating can be delicious, and uses the nicobella platform to help inspire people to be more kind to their bodies, the earth and to animals. When not in chocolate-world, you can find her volunteering at a local animal shelter, teaching a yoga class, or hiking with her husband, Ricky, and dog, Isabella.

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