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

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: Wikimedia Commons


Have you ever been grocery shopping when you were in a rush or hungry–or both? When that happens, we tend to throw items in our cart quickly, without checking their ingredients. We can end up buying items that contain ingredients that we’d typically try to avoid.

Palm oil is one such ingredient. Many people try to avoid it because its production can have devastating impacts on wildlife and the environment. It’s difficult to do, though, because palm oil is a key ingredient in so many of the products that we grab off the grocery store shelves.


Why is Palm Oil a Problem?

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, in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Without forests, many animals are killed or displaced as their habitat is destroyed. The Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, for instance, face high risk of extinction due to deforestation from palm oil production, and they’re the stars of a video campaign against palm oil production. Other animals native 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 is Palm Oil In–And Why is that Everything?

Avoiding palm oil is difficult because it’s 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.

And 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.

Why is palm oil in everything? It’s a high quality ingredient with no trans fats, it’s semi-solid at room temperature (which keeps margarine and vegan butter spreadable), it acts as an emulsifier in no-stir nut butters, and it has a high burning temperature, which makes it easier to fry things without burning them. It’s also the ingredient that makes instant noodles cook as quickly as they do.

It makes sense that palm oil is in these products. Without it, food products would be more expensive, have a different nutritional value, have a different texture or melting point, or be less convenient than they are with the inclusion of palm oil.  


What Can We Do About It?

The endangered Sumatran orangutan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Avoiding palm might seem to require the 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.

But 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.

You can also use apps such as Buycott or Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping 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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