From breakfast to lunch food to makeup and cleaning products: most of us often don’t realize it, but palm oil is an ingredient or is used in processing many products we use on a daily basis – some of which you may not even expect.

Is Palm Oil Vegan?

Technically speaking, palm oil is vegan, since it’s plant based. But from an ethical standpoint, for many, it is not vegan.

In itself, palm oil is a vegetable product, so it’s not derived from animals; therefore, it is technically vegan.

However, many vegans decide to avoid palm oil altogether, and the reason for this is that producing it is incredibly damaging to the environment.

Whole forests are burned in some areas of the world to make way for palm plantations because they are more profitable, compared to other sources of oil, as they grow fast and produce a high yield at a lower cost.

Given that the producing palm oil at such a large scale is detrimental to the environment, many companies and supermarket chains declared that they want to remove palm oil from products of their brand. A good example of this is Iceland Foods.

Why is Palm Oil Bad?

Due to the steady increase in demand from food companies, the cosmetic industry, and the automotive industry, regions of Southeast Asia such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with their beautiful and intricate rain forests, have been lost in recent years to make way for palm oil crops.

The automotive industry, in particular, is responsible for half of the palm oil imported yearly by European Countries, which is used for biofuel.

Here are some of the environmental effects of cultivating palm oil:

  • Forests are destroyed to make room for oil palm crops because oil palms are easier to maintain, grow quicker, and produce a higher yield for a lower cost, compared to other oils.
  • Clearing these forests means destroying various habitats for many animal species, pushing them near extinction. A few examples of fauna driven to near extinction are multiple species of orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, or Borneo elephant, to name a few.
  • In some cases, big corporations are turning a blind eye to the fact that some plantations in their supply chain use child or slave labor to produce palm oil. [Source: Amnesty International]

Does Sustainable Palm Oil Exist?

Unfortunately, while the sustainable palm oil initiative does make sense, there is too much unreliable information and it is too controversial at this time to conclude that it really is sustainable.

Furthermore, some palm oil productions tend to use loopholes in the local legal and regulatory systems in order to obtain their sustainability certifications.

What actually happens even in the case of sustainable production is that the forests are cut and burned, to be converted into palm oil plantations exactly like the uncertified ones, the only difference is that this happens after a few years have passed since illegal deforestation.

In most countries where tropical oils are produced, there are no laws that oblige the authorities to draw up registers and to make updated maps of land-use changes.

If these laws had existed, they could be used to sanction illegal actions and prevent a forest from being transformed into an agricultural area.

But since such laws don’t exist in some countries, it is practically impossible to know if there was a forest a few years ago, where a “certified sustainable” palm plantation now grows.

Most of the destruction and fires go unnoticed (also considering the high frequency and intensity), and often, the same governments favor deforestation.

Therefore, these certification systems declare “sustainable” plantations that only until recently would have been defined as illegal and unsustainable, because they were obtained at the expense of the tropical forest.

The clever trick of certification is companies can produce palm oil from crops planted in areas where forests were already destroyed some years before. They are considered sustainable as they aren’t further destroying forests, but using the areas where the damage has already been done.

What is Palm Oil Used For?

Only 21 percent of palm oil produced is used by the food industry: much more is used in other sectors for products that we use on a daily basis. Everyday products that we may consider as being innocent at first.

From cosmetics to candles, from soap to folic acid supplement for future mothers and biofuel, much more than what you would expect is partially composed of palm oil.

Which Everyday Products Are Made Using Palm Oil?

Many cosmetics use palm oil or palm seed oil – palm kernel – among their ingredients because it stabilizes the emulsions and gives them greater consistency.

  • Lipstick is one of the cosmetic products in which palm oil is more frequently found
  • Palm oil is also an ingredient widely used in detergents because it facilitates the production of foam. However, some companies have replaced it with algal oils, which have a much lower ecological footprint than tropical oils. Palm oil is also bleached and deodorized to produce white soaps.
  • Folic acid is recommended in the first few weeks of pregnancy, and in addition to olive oil, the ingredients include coconut fat and palm kernel oil.
  • Palm oil is also used as a conditioning agent that helps restore the natural oils of the hair that are usually damaged by shampoos.
  • Moreover, palm oil is also used for biofuel.

Within the food realm, palm oil is present in products such as:

  • Breakfast biscuits and tea biscuits, croissants, muffins, rusks, buns, and other leavened snacks, croutons, crackers, and breadsticks, which use palm oil because with its semi-solid consistency at room temperature, it is perfect for achieving a creamier consistency. Furthermore, palm oil is easy to bake with and, all things considered, inexpensive.
  • Doughs such as puff pastry or pizza dough often contain palm oil, which helps prevent stickiness and betters the flavor.
  • Palm oil is also used for chocolate since it prevents it from melting and gives it a shiny and more captivating look.
  • Margarine also contains palm oil, because of its solid consistency and because it does not contain trans-fat.
  • Furthermore, 20% of your instant noodles also are composed of palm oil, which is used to pre-cook the noodles, so that all you have to do is add warm water.
  • Finally, ice cream also contains palm oil, which helps with its smoothness and texture.

Palm Oil and Makeup?

In the cosmetic field, palm oil is used as a starting point for the creation of surfactants and emulsifiers used for the production of lipsticks and soaps.

Palm oil has lubricating properties, is very nutritious, and helps prevent the signs of aging.

It is rich in tocotrienols, powerful antioxidants that penetrate deep into the skin and are part of the vitamin E group. It is also rich in vitamin A and protects against free radicals and UV rays.

The cosmetic industries often use it in the form of derivatives, such as alcohols, fatty acids, palm triglycerides.

Among the large cosmetic industries that are committed to using sustainable certified palm oil, there are L’Erbolario, L’Occitane, and L’Orèal, which became a member of the RSPO in 2012. They guarantee, in addition to the certification of sustainable oil, the traceability of the materials raw materials used and support to small independent growers.

Palm Oil Alternatives/Substitutes

Seeing as palm oil is one of the key ingredients of so many products we use and love, but it has such a negative impact on the environment, and as some would argue, on our health, one question comes to mind.

So, are there any alternatives to palm oil? And if so, which ones?

Some of the most common include soybean, rapeseed, coconut, jatropha, and jojoba.

Even though these oils also represent a challenge in terms of sustainability and affordability, their production wouldn’t be as damaging as palm oil has been.

However, there is a reason why companies keep using palm oil and don’t invest in these alternatives: palm oil is cheaper to produce – in the short term, at least – the long term cost being paid by the environment.

Palm oil is also very efficient and produces more oil per land used than any other alternative (it represents 35% of the world’s oil demand, and uses 10% of the land).

Simply put, this means that to get the same amount of oil using soybean or coconut oil, we would need to use four to ten times more land. This would also create damage to the environment and its habitats; we would just be moving the issue to another geographical area.

Furthermore, many developing countries, and the farmers and workers who live there, depend on the production of palm oil, which, if stopped, would incredibly damage their economy.

These are the reasons why boycotting palm oil could potentially be the wrong answer to this problem.

How Do We Make Palm Oil Sustainable?

There is no simple solution.

As we said, in addition to the problem of soil consumption and loss of biodiversity, there are other more human factors to consider.

For example, some communities in the southern part of the world are benefiting from palm oil, and the alteration of the balance of demand and supply could have major economic consequences.

A partial yet possible solution would be to use palm oil-free make up.

Palm oil is present in many cosmetics (especially the least expensive ones because it allows the manufacturer to spend less money during production).

Although it is not as harmful as petrolatum, for example, it is a product that presents issues from an ethical point of view, and this is why it would be better to prefer cosmetic products that do not contain it.

How do you find palm-oil free products?

For starters, we could choose to use fresh ingredients rather than processed food and use oils such as those derived from sunflowers, olives, rapeseeds, or flaxseeds.

You can also pay closer attention to the labels of the products you buy.

Since December 2014, companies that work within the EU have to indicate whether they contain palm oil or not.

Even if this is mostly accurate when it comes to food products, often, cleaning products contain it and hide it with chemical names you might be unaware of, such as:

  • PKO – Palm Kernel Oil
  • PKO fractionations: Palm Kernel Stearin (PKs); Palm Kernel Olein (PKOo)
  • PHPKO – Partially hydrogenated Palm Oil
  • FP(K)O – Fractionated Palm Oil
  • OPKO – Organic Palm Kernel Oil
  • Palmitate – Vitamin A or Asorbyl Palmitate
  • Palmate
  • Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Glyceryl Stearate
  • Stearic Acid
  • Steareth -2
  • Steareth -20
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate
  • Hydrated palm glycerides
  • Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)

Be vocal!

If you’d like to know why a company is still using palm oil in their products, ask!

With this being such a sensitive issue, companies will be eager to improve their company’s image and to make their clients happy!

Ask your elected representatives and sign petitions and online campaigns and participate in protest marches and creative actions on the street.

To conclude…

Palm oil is one of the most widely used vegetable oils, but, following numerous controversies, it is increasingly common today to find products without palm oil on the market.

Palm oil, as well as palm kernel oil obtained from seeds, is an ingredient often used in soaps and body creams as an emulsifier and natural emollient.

However, numerous cosmetic industries undertake to use only RSPO certified palm oil (Roundtable on sustainable palm oil), i.e., a product processed using eco-sustainability criteria and in full respect of the rights of local workers.

(!) Although this certification has been subjected to serious criticism – some Greenpeace investigations have revealed that RSPO was also involved in some cases of deforestation.

Some firmly believe that it is not necessary to boycott products made with palm oil but rather to implement stricter rules and controls on production methods.

In fact, the oil palms, guaranteeing a quantitatively greater production than other plants such as rapeseed, sunflower, soybean, and olive trees, require a much smaller surface area of arable land and therefore produce less environmental damage.

Not even Greenpeace and the WWF are in favor of boycotting.

Instead, they advocate for the creation of certifications that ensure the use of safe products that are obtained with respect for nature and the Asian economies involved.

The cultivation of palm oil represents, in fact, for Eastern countries, an important source of work, and its interruption would result in negative results from an economic point of view.

The solution to stopping the abusive production of palm oil has to start with us changing our lifestyle and spreading awareness to others in hopes that we can make a difference together.

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