Palm Oil: Trick-or-Treat? A Scary Truth
Last Wednesday, I was on a mission. I walked quickly through a local Target.
I was trying hard to resist glances at the plethora of tempting (and unnecessary) products, from fancy shampoos to fall-themed throw pillows.
My mission: to get some candy for a cute jack-o-lantern bowl my officemate had bought. I am honestly a huge Halloween fan, and I thought it might be a “sweet” idea to buy some chocolate to keep in this bowl since she’d thoughtfully provided it (especially since a little dark chocolate, 70 to 85 percent cocoa, can have some great health benefits, from providing powerful antioxidants to lowering blood pressure).
A second part of my mission: to make sure that candy did not contain palm oil, which I’ve read contributes to the destruction of huge swaths of rain forest.
Standing in the candy aisle, overwhelmed by the number of chocolate choices, I felt like I could spend hours finding just the right treat.
It was around 6:30 p.m. and my husband and I were anxious to get back to our apartment to get dinner going, so I knew I couldn't spend long--so I grabbed a bag of Dove dark chocolate, didn't see palm oil in the ingredient list, and thought I was good to go—but then I saw it:
The last bag of Dove dark chocolate shaped like jack-o-lanterns...with caramel, a flavor I just can’t seem to get enough of for some reason!
“You coming, Shan?” my husband called to me from a nearby aisle.
I thought I was incredibly lucky to snag this last bag, so I grabbed it and we checked out to get on with our evening.
But then I realized, looking at the ingredients list, that I’d failed at the second part of my mission: one of the early ingredients in the Dove jack-o-lantern candies was palm oil.
I felt deflated...I thought about returning the bag, but we were far enough from the store when I realized this, I figured it might be worse for the environment to burn the gas driving back.
And this got me thinking--is palm oil really as bad as I’ve read? And how can I avoid it when it’s in so many products? I found some surprising answers--to learn more, read on: if you dare!
What Are the Impacts?
From granola bars to popcorn and even toothpaste, palm oil can be found in nearly every product imaginable these days. So why can it be so bad?
In these countries, huge areas of tropical forests, which are vital to the planet to absorb carbon, are cleared for oil palm plantations—where palm oil comes from. In fact, the burning of tropical forests for palm oil plantations ranks Indonesia as the third largest greenhouse gas contributor in the world (WWF).
In 2013, independent journalist Hillary Rosner reported there were around 25 million acres across Indonesia planted with oil palms. By 2020, that number is expected to grow to around 50 million acres—that’s over 10 percent of the country’s land. (ensia.com).
Up to 99 million kilograms of carbon per square mile can be stored in tropical Malaysian forests, which is equal to about the emissions of driving an average car from New York to San Francisco and back not once, but 76 times! (Union of Concerned Scientists).
The land used to grow oil palm is also on carbon-rich peatland, and clearing native vegetation from these areas results in even more carbon being released into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.
Peatlands store up to about 18 to 28 times as much carbon as the tropical forests where they are found. Adding to concerns, when peatlands are drained and burned to grow oil palm, another greenhouse gas is emitted—methane, which is 80 times more potent at absorbing heat and contributing to climate change than carbon in the first two decades after it’s released (edf.org).
Another major concern with growing the monocrop oil palm is the destruction of vital habitats for a variety of endangered species. Amazing creatures including rhinos, elephants, and tigers also often suffer from contaminated water and air pollution from harvesting this crop (WWF).
Orangutans in particular are threatened.
The burning of rain forests to plant oil palm can also cost lives. In just the year 2015, around 15,000 people died from the air pollution caused by Indonesian rain forest fires, many set intentionally to clear land for oil palm plantations (National Geographic).
Where Can It Be Found?
The demand for palm oil is booming, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
“‘Production has been doubling worldwide every 10 years during the past 40 years,’” Thomas Mielke, CEO of the market analysis firm Oil World, said in a March 2019 ensia report. “‘Palm oil has become the most important vegetable oil worldwide.’”
Palm oil can be found as a primary ingredient in products up and down supermarket aisles.
Chocolate is unfortunately a common offender because this versatile vegetable oil not only helps preserve it, but also gives it an attractive shiny and smooth appearance (WWF). Palm oil is often quite common in supermarket cookies and baked bread because it is solid at room temperature.
In 2018, Bloomberg News reported the organization GreenPeace targeted the makers of Oreo cookies, Mondelez International Inc., for destroying orangutan habitat with its reliance on palm oil in the famous black-and-white sandwich cookies.
Palm oil is also found in margarine because again it is sold at room temperature and on a positive health note, it does not contain trans fats, which contribute to heart disease and raise bad cholesterol levels.
But this pesky oil’s prevalence doesn’t stop at food.
Palm oil is also found in many cleaning products, such as soaps and laundry detergents, because it can remove dirt and oil while moisturizing (WWF).
This deceiving ingredient also goes by a long list of names, many that are hard to pronounce. Some common terms for it and its derivatives include vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitate, and palmolein (WWF).
Is It All Evil?
Luckily, the long list of environmental concerns stemming from palm oil, thanks of course to thorough environmental journalism on the topic, seems to have some big brands taking notice.
Ensia reports Nestlé, Unilever and Wal-Mart have all pledged to transition to only sustainably sourced palm oil. However, as Rosner argues, “they need to be held to those promises — but more importantly, they need to ensure that ‘sustainably sourced’ holds meaning. They need to insist on truly sustainable oil, deforestation-free.”
Industries that have taken notice of palm oil’s destructiveness have become part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This is a partnership between many parties involved in the palm oil industry, such as producers, retailers and NGOs, to produce palm oil in the most socially and environmentally-friendly ways.
The WWF says looking for the RSPO label can help consumers buy more rain forest friendly products.
Aldi has been a member of the partnership since 2010 and aims to have all of the food it sells align with the RSPO by 2025.
However, many environmental groups claim the RSPO simply isn’t as effective as it set out to be.
A 2018 study by the Australia-based University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) found RSPO certified palm oil plantations didn’t perform better on a variety of sustainability metrics than non-RSPO plantations (Mongabay News).
In particular, the populations of Bornean orangutans fell in both certified and non-certified plantations between 2009 and 2014.
“‘Despite aims to manage plantations in a way that ‘maintains and/or enhances’ high conservation value species, our study found little evidence that RSPO plantations are improving protection of the critically endangered orangutan,’” the study’s lead author, Courtney Morgans, told Mongabay.
Yikes! Is Any Palm Oil Safe?
So, should we all be boycotting palm oil as soon as possible to save our incredible rain forests and the amazing animals that call them home?
Unfortunately, with how many products rely on palm oil today, most sources say this is basically impossible.
However, ironically, many sources argue giving up palm oil could be even more disastrous for the planet. This is because another commodity would simply take its place, and it’s very possible this commodity would be even worse for the planet (Smithsonian).
Like it or not, palm oil is much more efficient to produce than nearly any other vegetable oil source known today, yielding about three times as much oil per acre and requiring less pesticides and chemical fertilizers than corn, coconut, and other vegetable oil sources (Smithsonian).
And palm oil can be produced in a sustainable way.
In Southwestern Gabon, Africa, for example, oil palm is native and plantations are more in tune with nature—there’s a healthy balance between agriculture and preserving forests, according to National Geographic.
I reached out to a college friend named Emma Edwards, currently working on her Masters in Global Human Development, who visited palm oil plantations in Benin, West Africa while she was a Peace Corps volunteer.
There, palm oil was an important source of income for women, she says, so she cautions people from blanket statements like, “all palm oil is bad.”
However, she also says that the operations in Benin are so small they don't produce the palm oil that makes its way onto US supermarket self products--but if consumers do their research, they can support more ethical and sustainable palm oil agriculture.
“I think in general consumers need to do more research into the products they choose to financially support and make sure they are OK with the way the ingredients are sourced,” she said via Messenger. “There are a handful of companies (not candy companies though) that source palm oil from small women's groups in West Africa and do incredible empowerment work.”
What You Can Do Today
I’ve learned the issue of palm oil isn’t nearly as black and white as I once thought.
It seems most large-scale palm oil production, used in packaged goods sold in supermarkets, probably contributes to devastating rain forest destruction—but luckily, many companies have acknowledged this and are taking some steps to improve the industry.
For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Wildlife Fund have scorecards (linked above respectively) that can help you determine the brands that are producing palm oil more responsibly. They take into consideration things like the amount of palm oil products the companies use and how much deforestation they cause.
So, we as the consumers do have some power in this--we can choose products that source palm oil sustainability, in essence “voting with our dollars.”
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado made a helpful guide of some of the best RSPO member companies to support this Halloween, such as Twizzlers from Hershey's, M&Ms from Mars, and Skittles from Wrigley.
Unfortunately, with the reported ineffectiveness of the RSPO, I think the best option might just be cutting down on buying packaged treats in general—no matter how tempting they are in the aisles of Target.
For me, this is the more chilling quest, but I believe sometimes the best rewards can come from facing our fears.