What you need to know about palm oil

What you need to know about palm oil

  • 5 April 2020
The amount of palm oil produced globally has drastically increased in recent years along with the negative attention placed on this controversial ingredient. Here’s what you need to know about this product you are in some way or another using every day.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil made from the fruit of oil palm trees. About 70 million tons are produced annually and at least 85% of it comes from Malaysia and Indonesia.

What is palm oil used for?

There is a huge demand for palm oil because of its versatility and suitability in a wide variety of applications. The WWF estimates that around 50% of supermarket products contain palm oil.

We all use palm oil every day - it’s an ingredient in cosmetics like shampoo, lipstick, soap, and deodorant. It tastes neutral and has no odour, which means it is an ideal ingredient in processed foods as it doesn't affect its smell or taste. It is found in many packaged food products, like frozen pizzas, pastries, ready meals, chocolate, biscuits, instant noodles, and margarine. Unlike other oils it is resistant to oxidation and can lengthen a product's shelf life, and it is also stable at high temperatures.

Why is it such an issue?

Palm oil production is associated with some major environmental and social issues.

Oil palm trees grow best in the warm and humid climates of rainforests. Huge tracts of tropical rainforests are cleared every year in order to make room for the growing demand for oil palm tree plantations. This wide-scale deforestation causes a loss of biodiversity as iconic endangered species like Orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, and Sumatran tigers lose their habitat and are pushed closer to extinction. Some local indigenous communities have reportedly been forcibly displaced to make room for plantations, and there have been reports of workers’ rights violations.

What can you do to help?

The obvious answer is to boycott palm oil. However, it is such a valuable ingredient in many different products and can’t simply be taken out and replaced with another oil.

Compared to other commonly used vegetable oils, like coconut and soybean, palm oil is very efficient as it has a higher yield per hectare: it needs less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil. This makes palm oil the least expensive vegetable oil to produce in the world.

An easy way to avoid eating foods containing palm oil is to simply cook meals at home. Only processed foods contain palm oil, so cooking from fresh ingredients, like with our Daily Dish boxes, rather than eating prepackaged meals means you’ll be consuming much less palm oil.

Even by avoiding food products that have palm oil as an ingredient, we will undoubtedly still use other products containing this ingredient, like cosmetics. You can choose to buy products made with sustainable palm oil. Look out for products with a RSPO certification logo on their label. The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oilis the largest independent standard for sustainable production of palm oil. RSPO certified palm oil means the oil comes from a company that does not clear primary forest, and provides fair working conditions and wages to workers.