What is Palm Oil? Should I Boycott It?

Author: Ruby Helyer


palm seeds

For many of us, we take notice of the food we consume or products we purchase for various reasons.

When trying to be more sustainable, we often choose to buy package-free or from more independent businesses to keep our carbon footprint down; some of us try to eat a plant-based diet, whether that’s full time or as a flexitarian; now, adding to the list of things to look out for, we should be looking to see if palm oil features in any of the products we pick up.

While we’re all trying our best and we definitely can’t each be responsible for everything to help fix the planet, however, palm oil can make a huge difference and is something we can easily be aware of.

Palm oil is something that many people who try to live a more conscious life have concerns about, but not many people know the true information about what it is so they can make an informed choice.

I didn’t hear about palm oil for the first time until 2016 while sitting at my work lunch table.

A colleague had told me that he and his girlfriend were giving up palm oil and he found it really difficult because he absolutely loved eating Jaffa Cakes, but the branded ones were not free from it and he simply kept forgetting to buy non-branded.

I really had no idea what palm oil was, why it was bad, or if I should have been avoiding it all this time, too.

First Of All, What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is simply a type of vegetable oil.

While labelled under many different names, some as obvious as palm oil, many more deceivingly vague names such as vegetable oil or palmate* are more often found on packaging, thus keeping you entirely unaware of whether you’re consuming palm oil or not.

Now we know roughly what it is, we can wonder where it comes from.

Since olive oil is a derivative of olives, and since it’s a vegetable oil, one could expect there to be a vegetable called palm that would make palm oil. But, no. There isn’t. I checked.

The oil palm tree, or Elaeis Guineensis, is different from the famed luxurious palm trees that line Sunset Boulevard in LA. Elaeis Guineensis are native to West Africa, and were brought over to Asia, specifically Indonesia and Malaysia, around a century ago, which is where they became a worldly export of palm kernel oils.

Oil palm trees produce oil from its kernels and crude palm oil from its fruit.

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Alternatives To Palm Oil

Because of it’s unique solid temperature, there are few oils that measure up to all of its uses and properties. However, there are, of course, options for you to be able to purchase palm oil-free products if you know what to look for or don’t mind a little extra research.

There are many foods or products that do not contain this type of oil or its derivatives, once you know what labels and names it can come under, you can simply check the ingredients list when shopping to ensure that the product contains a better alternative instead.

Consider the carbon footprint of your products, too. There are many oils that may have been produced closer to home than the South East Asian palm oils. Buying from locally produced and sourced companies can help keep ingredients local and your palm oil consumption down.

other names for palm oil

Other names for palm oil

Sustainable Palm Oil

Now, after reading this article, you must be thinking I can never use palm oil again, but you’re totally wrong.

There is sustainably harvested palm oil to ensure consumers get the full range of properties that the palm oil kernel offers, but without the mass deforestation and ruining of wildlife habitats that usually comes with it.

If you’re wanting to continue to buy palm products, ensure that it has the RSPO stamp of approval.

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, began in the early 2000s as a response to the global impact that palm oil harvesting had created.

When you buy RSPO certified palm oil you are buying from producers who agree to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), which complies with certain demands to ensure sustainable production.

By buying from RSPO or CSPO certified oil companies you can still enjoy palm-based products while remaining sustainable and responsible to the planet and its wildlife.

What Are People Doing About it?

Large British frozen food supermarket, Iceland, made a pledge in 2018 that they would ensure by the end of the year none of their own-brand products would contain palm oil. They even sold adorable squishy orangutan toys for charity to help consumers keep the end goal in mind and support the animals that are losing their habitat from non-sustainable harvesting practices. While Iceland didn’t meet their December 2018 deadline, they did release a statement in April 2019 to say they were confident that by the end of that month their own-brand products would be free of palm oil and any that still were sold were simply manufactured before December 2018 and were a surplus of stock that they didn’t want to go to waste.

As well as companies changing their practices to enact change, some celebrities have also spoken out about their outrage on deforestation due to palm oil harvesting.

In 2016 famed actor Leonardo DiCaprio put himself on the potential deportation list from Indonesia by speaking out about the bad practices in the palm industry and how the deforestation in Indonesia affects the native elephants, among other issues. Using his worldwide platform, DiCaprio and his foundation, The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, aim to fight deforestation due to palm oil farming, as well as many other wildlife activism.

What Can We Do?

While you don’t have to do anything too drastic, it’s important that you can make informed decisions about what you to choose to buy.

Whether you are making sustainable beauty swaps or trying to go vegan and including more ways than just simply not eating animal products, being informed about palm oil can help you make responsible choices.

Consider the phrase “vote with your dollar” (whether you are American, or not). Know that the products you choose to buy help support certain ideals, economies, and can have environmental impact.

With all the information at hand about palm oil and how it is harvested and can be used and purchased, it may sound confusing about what your next steps should be.

Should We Be Boycotting The Palm Oil Industry?

Yes… and no.

As with anything to do with environmental conservatism, we must all do our own research.

Figure out what matters most to you; I cannot tell you what you need to prioritize or where you should spend your money.

Perhaps you want to totally avoid all palm oil and find suitable alternatives for your food, or maybe you want to support sustainably sourced palm oil and search out RSPO certified oil in your products, or perhaps you even find that you’re struggling with keeping a zero-waste lifestyle and being vegetarian and keeping fit all at once, and this one may have to be one battle you can’t take on board. That’s okay! Having the information is the important thing.

With information comes great responsibility. The power to know and decide what works best for you and our planet.

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Read next: Becoming Zero Waste >>

About the author

Ruby is a Brit lost in space. She enjoys travelling the world, having lived in a handful of different countries she now lives and studies in beautiful Tennessee, US. When she isn’t fighting the environmental battle against climate change, she can be found walking her dogs, creating illustrations, or experimenting in the kitchen.

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