What Can I Do About the Palm Oil In My Food?

Image: Land cleared in Borneo to make room for an oil palm plantation. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oil_palm_clearing_ground_Borneo.JPG


Have you ever been in a situation where you were grocery shopping and either in a rush, hungry, or both? When that happens, we tend to throw items in our cart quickly and might end up grabbing things without checking the ingredients to see what was in our food. Because of this, we might end up buying items that contain ingredients that we might typically try to avoid.

Palm oil is one of those products that some people try to avoid, but it is in an overwhelming amount of products. However, its production carries with it a devastating effect on the health of both wildlife and our environment.


Palm Oil is in Over 50% of Our Products

Palm oil is an ingredient in many common food products, including bread, chips, chocolate, frosting, margarine, nut butters, and instant noodles. In fact, some studies have found that palm oil can be in up to 50% of the products in an average grocery store. Because of palm oil’s ubiquitous nature, it can be incredibly hard to avoid.

Palm oil can show up under different names on the package label, or as ingredients you might not recognize or realize may include palm oil. Some of these include: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, and Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3.

It is important to note here that palm oil is not necessarily in all of these ingredients, rather it has the potential to be included in something labeled as “vegetable oil” if the components that make up “vegetable oil”  are not specified. For example, if the product label has “vegetable oil” listed as including soybean and/or sunflower oil, then you know that food is palm oil free. If it is not specified, then it has the potential to contain palm oil.

But why is palm oil in everything? It is in so many products because it is a high quality ingredient with no trans fats, it is semi-solid at room temperature (which keeps your margarine and vegan butter from turning rock soil), it acts as an emulsifier in your no-stir nut butters, and it has a high burning temperature, meaning you have an easier time frying things without burning them. It’s also the key ingredient that makes instant noodles cook as quickly as they do.

It makes sense that palm oil is in these products. Without it, your food products might be more expensive, might have a different nutritional value, have a different texture or melting point, or might not be as convenient as they were with the inclusion of palm oil.  


The endangered Sumatran orangutan. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sumatra_Orangutan.jpg

Problematic Palm Oil

If palm oil is so cheap and widely used, then why is it an issue? In order to grow enough trees to produce enough palm oil to meet demand, large amounts of land are burned or cut down to make room for oil palm monocultures. Most of this land was previously tropical rainforest, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. This is a particular problem for these two countries, as they are both

Without forests, many animals are killed or displaced as their habitat is destroyed. The Bornean and Sumatran orangutans face high risks of extinction due to deforestation from palm oil production, and they are the stars of a video campaign against palm oil production. Other animals endemic to these countries are losing their habitats and are also at an increased risk of extinction. This includes two species of elephant, one species of rhino, and one species of tiger.




What Can We Do About It?

So if palm oil is in over half of the items in our grocery store, what can we do about it? Avoiding it would require knowledge of all the ingredient names that mean palm oil, as well as time to read the ingredient labels on everything we buy. For some people this may be feasible, but for most of us, it won’t be.

If you are determined to avoid products to that contain palm oil, there are ways to do it that won’t add hours to your shopping trips. As you eat or prepare your food in your home, look over the labels. If you find a product that contains palm oil, commit to researching and finding a replacement for that product. Once you’ve replaced one product, move on to another one.

There are also apps, such as Buycott or Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping, which you can use to scan food labels, either at home or at the grocery store, and be alerted to the inclusion of palm oil on the ingredient list. While these apps aren’t perfect and may not work on all products, they can be a helpful tool and are a step in the right direction.

While it might be impossible to keep 100% of your groceries palm oil free, it is possible to buy better palm oil. Look for certifications such as Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Rainforest Alliance on your products. These are just two of the organizations that work to provide sustainable palm oil products and prevent deforestation and habitat degradation.


Tips for Implementing Change

  1. Start with one product at a time. Once you’ve replaced it, move on to a new product.
  2. Look for products that contain certifications, such as RSPO and Rainforest Alliance
  3. Download helpful apps to scan barcodes, such as Buycott or Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping
  4. Don’t be upset if you make a mistake – change takes time, and slow progress is still progress!

Good luck!

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