You might have heard about palm oil controversy through the years – and if you're confused about why, we're here to demystify it.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, and about half of all packaged products contain it. Yes, that includes some of your favourite biscuits, ice-cream, bread, and even household items like shampoo and toothpaste! You might not even recognise it easily on Australian products, as it's often labelled as simply “vegetable oil.”
Sound harmless enough, right? Well, not exactly. The problem with palm oil is that it's often not sustainably produced. Unfortunately, about 300 football fields of forest disappear every day due to deforestation to make way for the planting of oil palm trees. These forests are home to orangutans, who are dwindling in numbers and are considered critically endangered.
Oh no! Then why would companies use palm oil?
Palm oil has a neutral flavour and odour, making it ideal for use in food and hygiene products.
More crucially, palm oil is economical. Palm oil is cheaper than other cooking oils to produce because both the outer and inner parts of the plant provide usable oil. This means that more oil can be produced per hectare than other types of oil. In fact, the plant is 10 times as productive as plants used to make canola oil, according to food technologist Fred Berger.
So is all palm oil bad?
Here's the good news: sustainable palm oil is possible.
The key to sustainable palm oil production is in focusing on maximising the output from current land rather than causing further deforestation. Greenpeace conducted a 2016 study on the use of palm oil, and said "companies need to start actively monitoring their suppliers for deforestation, peatland destruction, labour issues and social conflicts – and should take swift action against persistent offenders."
In the Greenpeace study, major international corporations including Nestlé and Ferrero (yes, those folks behind Nutella) are leading the way in sustainable palm oil sourcing and production. Australia has also made changes, including Woolworths who earlier this year announced their 2020 commitment to remove non-sustainable palm oil in their products.
OK, so how can I avoid buying products with unsustainable palm oil?
Turns out, it's not as easy as looking for 'palm oil' on the ingredient label, as it can go by many names. Other terms to look out for include:
Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol
And there are even more! It's definitely a difficult job for the average consumer to keep track of, especially given it has around 200 names!
Luckily non-profit organisation the Orangutan Alliance is trying to make it easier for us to avoid palm oil. They believe around 70% of consumers are conscious consumers, meaning we would buy products with a no palm oil and sustainability claim. Knowing it could help these lovely animals, wouldn't you?
That's why they've developed 'no palm oil' certification.
“Consumers are becoming more informed, socially aware and are starting to purchase based on values.” said Orangutan Alliance spokesperson Maria Abadilla. “If consumer demand is where change starts, then this is a starting indication for manufacturers to work towards transparency in labeling and more sustainable practices.”
So, if you want to make a difference, check the label of your groceries to see if they contain palm oil. You can also look out for a sustainable palm oil certification – the orangutans will thank you for it!
Sydney-based Hannah Oakshott is a tea-obsessed pop culture enthusiast who can usually be found showing people pictures of her two miniature schnauzers or baking sweet, lemony food. Hannah is on Instagram @hannah.mareeee