It’s that pesky little ingredient that has made its way into a number of products. Today, whether or not it’s “vegan” is hotly debated. What is it? Palm oil. And what’s the verdict? Let’s explore. And be sure to check out some resources for consumers throughout this post.
Palm Oil, What Is It?
Palm oil is the edible vegetable oil provided by the fruit of the oil palm trees (to be clear, coconuts are not grown on oil palms, but on coconut palms). While palm oil comes from the fruit of an oil palm, palm kernel oil is a product from the seeds of an oil palm. Though they are two different product classifications, they are derived from the same tree. And both will be considered here when using the term “palm oil.”
Palm oil is a saturated fat. Its use dates back centuries. However, in the 1980s, after they had created the technology allowing for the production of soy-based partially-hydrogenated oils, the privately-funded American Soybean Association began an initiative to convince Americans that palm oil (in addition to coconut oil, another heavily-used oil at the time) was unhealthy. This push simultaneously emphasized the benefits of soy, and touted domestic jobs and soy farms as a potential boon to the economy (Robinson). Thus, palm oil was largely removed from consumer products. That is, until 2013.
In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) declared that trans fats were no longer generally recognized as safe (GRAS). In place of trans fats, palm oil has made its way back into the market as an effective replacement. Today, it’s found in approximately 50% of all processed foods!
Palm oil is valued because farming for it is an economically competitive land use, farming requires a limited footprint for production (relatively speaking, that is, compared to other oil crops), farming produces a high yield, it’s quite versatile, the ingredient is shelf-stable, and it’s cheap (albeit, only because the environmental and social costs of production have been externalized).
Palm oil is used not only in our processed food, but also in beauty products, cleaning supplies, biodeisel, and more.
Veganism and Palm Oil
While palm oil is not an animal product or byproduct, it’s largely considered a non-vegan ingredient due to the process of creating palm farms. (This is a great example of when the distinction between a plant-based diet and a vegan lifestyle is excruciatingly important.)
Oil palms grow in equatorial regions. These same regions are home to invaluable rainforests. Oil palm farms are largely located in Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and central regions of Africa. While environmental impacts are significant in all of these regions, of particular concern are operations in Southeast Asia — specifically, farming operations in Borneo and Sumatra.
The Environmental and Animal Impacts
Growing palm oil typically first requires the clearing of rainforests. Ancient forests, filled with unique species, are either clear cut or removed via slash-and-burn techniques (the heartbreaking devastation of this latter technique is realizing that all the animals within the forests are burned alive). The equivalent of 300 football fields are cleared each hour for palm oil! Monocultures replace the rich rainforests which once stood. This significant deforestation not only has major impacts on the health of our planet overall — contributing massively to global warming — but results in habitat loss, human encroachment on wildlife areas (also, encroachment by foreigners on indigenous communities), and an increase in poaching of the now vulnerable animals that were “lucky” enough to survive the forest clearing in the first place. Wandering onto the new palm farms, these animals are seen as pests and are killed, or chased off the farm. Sadly, with their homes now destroyed, they have nowhere else to go.
One of our closest cousins, the orangutan, has become the symbolic face of the perils of palm oil farming. Each year, we lose over 6,000 orangutans! — an already endangered species!
The destruction of rainforest regions has incredibly devastating impacts not just on the Sumatran Orangutan, however, but also on overall biodiversity and the lives of a number of significant species, including the Sumatran Elephant, the Sumatran Rhino, and the Sumatran Tiger, as well as the Bornean Pygmy Elephants.
The Human Impact
Palm oil is a cash crop. Poorer countries are eager to deforest and plant palm oil farms. Within the 20 degrees latitude surrounding the equator, there are no developed countries. Whereas palm oil is often defended as a viable means to improve the livelihood of indigenous communities, it actually functions largely as an exploitative industry. Foreigners benefit the most, as they swoop in to create and manage the farms, making it harder for natives to make a living as they once had done using resources from the rainforest.
In addition to removing the livelihoods of natives, palm oil production exploits young children who end up working on farms rather than attending school. It’s a major human rights violation. Between 72,000 to 200,000 stateless children (i.e., children that do not have citizenship, literally no place to call home) in Malaysia alone are estimated to work on palm oil farms. Women and children workers, furthermore, are exposed to the toxic chemicals in the form of the pesticides they apply to the farms.
There are some organizations that currently exist for the purpose of maintaining accountability of palm oil production; however, their effectiveness is debated. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is one such organization. From their website:
The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When they are properly applied, these criteria can help to minimize the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions.
However, in reading on the organization, it seems that they are challenged to actually hold their members accountable. Many members apparently fail to complete their annual paperwork. Furthermore, palm oil is essentially untraceable, so it’s difficult to know one way or another if it was sourced sustainably.
Other programs are also trying to improve the industry. The GreenPalm Certificates, for example, allow organizations to purchase a form of sustainability “credit” to offset their impact. And organizations like the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) are building upon RSPO’s original standards to make them stricter and more objective.
Is Palm Oil Inherently Bad?
The short answer, I believe, is no . . . but it is currently very problematic. Not all palm oil production is destructive or a major human rights violation. While it remains difficult to trace the source of palm oil, there are a number of organizations working to increase accountability and encourage alternative practices. Choosing land other than rainforest areas is one such alternative practice. Some regions are more appropriate for growing palm oil than others (e.g., grasslands in Africa) due to the fact that there are limited native wildlife that would be adversely affected.
The other caveat: as some sources of palm oil are less sustainable than others, it’s important that we must do research and support companies that are striving to practice sustainable production (see the resources below for consumers). We should avoid palm oil, wherever possible, and always write to companies to demonstrate the demand for palm oil alternatives and/or sustainably harvested palm oil.
To be fair, all crops will have negative consequences for someone. So it’s challenging to identify that one panacea crop which can be produced at a scale large enough to meet global demand. Palm oil can be sustainably produced (40% of palm oil farms are managed locally, and usually responsibly), but the challenge is doing so on a global scale for mass-production.
While palm oil is problematic, I do not find a reason to label it entirely non-vegan. We should be careful, furthermore, to avoid demonizing vegan products with sustainably produced palm oil lest we intend to reinforce a demand for non-vegan products altogether.
I would say that, for as difficult as it is to trace palm sources, sustainably produced palm oil can be a vegan-friendly product. As consumers, we need to put more pressure on vegan food producers to source ethical, sustainable, traceable, and legal palm oil. And until then, here are some resources to make shopping a bit easier:
For Consumers, Avoiding Palm Oil
Unless we’re consuming an entirely whole foods diet, we’re bound to be faced with the decision of purchasing or not purchasing products with palm oil — and we sometimes have to do our own research to ensure that we’re not contributing to habitat destruction, worker exploitation, and the massive decline in populations of wild animals. Palm oil can be difficult to track in our products; particularly so because companies may use an alternative name or the name of a palm oil derivative. Knowing what to look for will help you make more conscious purchases. There are a number of ingredients that may or may not be palm oil derived. This adds a layer of confusion. One way to know if a product definitely does contain palm oil is to look for the following on ingredients lists (source):
- Cetyl Palmitate
- Elaeis Guineensis
- Epoxidized Palm Oil (UV cured coatings)
- Ethylhexyl Palmitate
- Hydrated Palm Glycerides
- Octyl Palmitate
- Palm Oil
- Palm Fruit Oil
- Palm Kernel
- Palm Kernel Oil
- Palm Stearine
- Palmitic Acid
- Palmityl Alcohol
- Palmitoyl Oxostearamide
- Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3
- Saponified Elaeis Guineensis
- Sodium Kernelate
- Sodium Palm Kernelate
- Sodium Palmate
If you can’t remember the list above, or want to make sure that some of the more generic ingredients aren’t palm oil derived, you can download the PalmSmart app for your smart phone. With this app, you can scan the barcode of a product to see its rating with regards to palm oil ingredients. If a product is not already listed, you can add it.
- FDA. (2015). FDA Cuts Trans Fat in Processed Foods. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
- The Orangutan Project. (n.d.). Palm Oil. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
- Robinson, S. (1987). Palm oil makers mount counterattack against soy growers. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
- Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Project. (n.d.). Social Impacts. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
- Balance Out the Bad | Episode 3: Palm Oil
- Costing the Earth | The Palm Oil Palm Off
- Food For Thought | Palm Oil, Earth Balance, and Rainforest Destruction – A Straw-Man Argument or a Legitimate Connection?
- The Good Stuff | Episode 11: Girl Scout Cookies, Orangutans and Palm Oil
- Sustainababble | #48: Palm Oil
- The Vegan Option | Palm Oil
- Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack | 071 Understanding Tricky Non-Vegan Things: Honey, Palm Oil, Horseback Riding, etc.
- Bite Sized Vegan | Is Palm Oil Vegan?
There’s clearly a lot to be said about palm oil. This post was a quick-turnaround research project. If you feel like you could contribute to, or clarify the knowledge presented above, I invite you to reach out.
As always, I’d love to hear from you!
Do you have information to contribute? Do you believe something in my post needs to be modified? Or do you have a reaction to the above post that you would love to share? Please feel free to comment below. I will monitor these comments to maintain a safe and comfortable environment. Also, I invite you to reach out and connect with me on Instagram at @crunchyvegangal or by email email@example.com