From cookies and cake mix to hair care and toothpaste, here's where to look for sneaky, eco-catastrophic palm oil.
In describing the dystopian fairytale that is the story of palm oil – the forest-burning, orangutan-killing wonder ingredient – I don't think I can do any better than Paul Tullis does in an epic and important long read for The Guardian:
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there grew a magical fruit. This fruit could be squeezed to produce a very special kind of oil that made cookies more healthy, soap more bubbly and crisps more crispy. The oil could even make lipstick smoother and keep ice-cream from melting. Because of these wondrous qualities, people came from around the world to buy the fruit and its oil.In the places where the fruit came from, people burned down the forest so they could plant more trees that grew the fruit – making lots of nasty smoke and sending all of the creatures of the forest scurrying away. When the trees were burned, they emitted a gas that heated up the air. Then everybody was upset, because they loved the forest’s creatures and thought the temperature was warm enough already. A few people decided they shouldn’t use the oil any more, but mostly things went on as before, and the forest kept burning.
Tullis details our dependence on palm oil and its devastating environmental impact and asks the question, "Is it too late to break the habit?"
As consumers, we may wish to break the habit by avoiding the ubiquitous products that contain palm oil – if only it were that easy. It is a sneaky, sneaky ingredient. It finds its way into all kinds of surprising products and does so in a confusing variety of names, making it often times nearly impossible to see in ingredient labels – like elaeis guineensis, sodium kernelate, or simply, vegetable fat.
For a list of ingredient names, you can the more than 200 terms it goes by at Palm Oil Investigations (POI). But also, importantly, one needs to know what products to research in the first place.
Knowing that palm oil was eagerly adopted by processed food makers to replace trans fats, many of us expect that it is a likely ingredient in snack foods, but some of its other uses may come as a surprise. POI, which bills itself as a palm oil watchdog, has a great palm oil usage guide which lists products by category and includes information on a product's palm supply, certification (or not), et cetera.
Familiarizing yourself with the basic product categories in which palm oil is found is a good place to start if you would like to do your part to break out this catastrophic habit.
• Biscuits (AKA cookies) and crackers
• Breakfast cereal
• Cake mix
• Chips and crisps
• Cleaning products and laundry
• Hair care
• Health food bars
• Ice cream and frozen yogurts
• Margarine and soft butter spreads
• Peanut butter and other spreads
• Skin care brands in supermarkets
• Soap bars
• Soap liquid and shower gel
And amazingly, this list is not inclusive. Palm oil is used in many a surprising way, like in adhesives, or as we reported earlier, in biofuel. Over half the palm oil used in Europe is actually put into gas tanks via diesel.
I encourage everyone to read the Guardian piece: How the world got hooked on palm oil. The planet and it creatures are under assault on so many fronts – humans are doing the damage, and it's up to us to stop it, before it's too late. In the case of rampant deforestation and killing all the orangutans and other creatures, if it means skipping one's favorite cookies, it seems like the least we can do.
Photo caption: Taken on January 11, 2019, the image shows a wild Sumatran orangutan feeding on fruits in the Leuser ecosystem near Suaq Balimbing, Sumatra, Indonesia. The Leuser ecosystem, an area of stunning beauty where peat swamp and dense forest surround waterfalls and mountains poking through clouds, is like much of Indonesia's rainforests – under threat from the aggressive expansion of palm oil and pulp and paper plantations. The area, mostly in Aceh, is home to endangered Sumatran orangutans as well as elephants, bears and snakes, including king cobras.