This Halloween, Choose Candy That Doesn't Harm Orangutans

Look for sustainable palm oil—or none at all—in the treats you buy.

peanut butter chocolate cup

Perry Gerenday / Getty Images

Within a few days, many of us will have hordes of lively trick-or-treaters at our front doors, their bags and baskets held out in hopes of a good candy haul. Our job as good neighbors is, of course, to comply with that, helping these children to realize their dreams of amassing the candy stash to beat all stashes. And so we buy boxes of treats ahead of the big night, supporting all the big candy brands whose delectable concoctions have become familiar favorites over the years.

The only problem is, many of these candy products—delicious though they may be—contain palm oil, and palm oil can be a terrible ingredient from the perspective of the environment and wildlife. Most of the time it is produced on vast plantations in Southeast Asia and South and Central America that are created through the large-scale bulldozing and burning of ancient tropical rainforests. When mismanaged, this destroys habitats for many vulnerable and endangered species, including orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra and sloths in Ecuador.

Why Palm Oil?

Palm oil is desirable to candy makers for the consistency it lends to confectionery. Its versatility makes it appealing to manufacturers of a broad range of products, from prepared foods and baked goods to personal care and cleaning products, which is why it's found in 50% of items in a typical supermarket.

WWF explains why it's so useful: "[Palm oil] is semi-solid at room temperature, so can keep spreads spreadable; it is resistant to oxidation, so can give products a longer shelf-life; it’s stable at high temperatures, so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; and it’s also odourless and colourless, so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products."

A Quest for Better Palm Oil

There has been a push over the past decade to improve palm oil production and sourcing standards, so as to ensure that this very important crop (which represents 40% of the world's vegetable oil) can still be grown and distributed in a way that doesn't destroy small-scale farmers' livelihoods or undermine their traditional way of cooking and eating, while minimizing ecological harm. 

Organizations like WWF, Rainforest Alliance, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and Palm Done Right now say that supporting sustainable palm oil production is a better approach than boycotting, which can cause harm of its own. 

As Hillary Rosner wrote for National Geographic several years ago, "Boycotting could have ramifications that are even worse for the environment. Producing the same amount of another vegetable oil would take up even more land. And eliminating support for the companies trying to make palm oil production less ecologically damaging would give a competitive advantage to the ones that care only about turning a profit."

Not everyone agrees with this approach, and some organizations advocate for full palm oil boycotts. For example, Primate Rescue Center acknowledges that some companies may use sustainable palm oil, but "when companies use any type of palm oil, it creates more demand. Therefore, we support candy and treats without any palm oil." The right choice is not clear-cut.

Palm Oil and Halloween Candy

So how does this apply to your Halloween celebrations in a town or city that's probably thousands of miles away from the nearest palm oil plantation? Well, the candy you choose to buy and hand out to trick-or-treaters has a tiny but calculable impact on global commodities markets—and by opting to buy sustainably-sourced palm oil or no palm oil at all, you send a message to companies, regulators, and farmers on the other side of the world that you care about orangutan habitats, rainforest preservation, and protecting biodiversity.

As Monique van Wijnberger, sustainability and corporate communications director for Natural Habitats Group and spokesperson for Palm Done Right, told Treehugger, "Buying from brands that make sustainable and organic products that are dedicated to transparency in labeling and sourcing is one important way to ensure that we’re taking care of the planet—and the precious animals in it."

There are various resources available to help you decipher what's what.

Sustainable Palm Oil

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has a sustainable palm oil app that's free to download and can help you choose products that are "orangutan-friendly" and certified by RSPO. It also offers PDF versions of shopping guides that you can view here; the Halloween one is shown below.

orangutan-friendly Halloween treats

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

ZooTampa offers the following list of candies that it describes as "orangutan-friendly," including 3 Musketeers, Airheads, Almond Joy, Butterfinger, Cadbury, Ghirardelli (without filling), Haribo, Justin’s, Kit Kat, Milky Way, Skittles, Snickers, Starburst, Twix, and Twizzlers.

There's some debate over specific companies like Mondelez and Mars, which may be committed to RSPO standards in certain areas of production, but not all of their corporate groups. So the Orangutan Alliance urges avoiding brands like Oreo, Milka, Nutter Butter, and Sour Patch.

Orangutan Alliance goes on to say, "There are some products without palm oil like Toblerone, Chips Ahoy, and select Cadbury products... but if you want to divest from supporting companies that are not standing by their palm oil promises, then avoid the brand altogether." 

Mars' transparency is questionable as well, despite its RSPO commitments, so the Alliance recommends sticking with Mounds and M&Ms, as these are palm oil-free.

Nestle, for the most part, should be avoided. It "does not have a large selection of candies without palm oil," the Alliance says, and even lost its RSPO certification briefly in 2018, though this was quickly reinstated. Nestle also owns Allen's, which contains many food products made with palm oil.

Hershey is generally viewed as a winner and cited as a company that goes above and beyond its RSPO requirements. Lindt and Ritter are reputable options, as well. 

Palm Oil-Free

Another approach is to avoid palm oil altogether. This is the goal of the Primate Rescue Center, which produces what's perhaps the most comprehensive list of palm oil-free candies. It points out that, "Even on the same shelf, for the same type of product, the ingredients may vary. For example, BRACH’S has several different kinds of candy corn with palm oil and several without it." 

In other words, it's highly inconsistent and extremely confusing. Here's another example: "Mr. Goodbar now includes palm oil; Mr. Goodbar with palm oil and without palm oil are both in stores." And peanut M&Ms have palm oil, while chocolate do not. The list of contradictions goes on.

Products Without Palm Oil has also created a lengthy reference list of candies (updated for 2021) that contain no palm oil. These include Hershey Kisses and bars (not miniatures), Jolly Ranchers, chocolate M&Ms, Nerds, Raisinets, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (not holiday versions, so read label), Red Hots, Ring Pops, and more.

It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with ingredient labels and recognize places where palm oil could be hiding. Check out this list of 25 sneaky names for palm oil, or take the Orangutan Alliance's advice and avoid any products with ingredients that start with palm, laur, stear, or glyc. 

More Tips

A few basic suggestions for buying candy include buying single types, rather than big variety packs, so you only have to decipher one ingredients label. Consider making your own mixed treat bags with candies you know to be sustainably sourced. Look for items with fewer ingredients, which means less chance of palm oil sneaking in. Look for certifications printed on the packaging, because if a company has gone to extreme lengths to ensure sustainable palm oil sourcing, they're probably going to want you to know.

Van Wijnberger of Palm Done Right adds, "Look for brands that care about things like organic, non-GMO, and fair trade. And look for certified sustainable palm and the Palm Done Right logo to be sure that the products you choose are using clean ingredients from a reliable supply chain. The more consumers learn to demand clean products, the better off our planet will be. Transparency—knowing the sources of ingredients, and thus knowing ingredients are sustainably and ethically produced—is going to be key in creating the shift to making real impact on the ground, to protect forests, wildlife, and farming communities."

What it comes down to is deciding whether you wish to pursue sustainable palm oil or avoid it altogether. People will have different approaches this Halloween, and that's OK, but your reference list will change according to your goal.

View Article Sources
  1. Voora, V., et al. "Global Market Report: Palm Oil." International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2019.

  2. "Endangered Species Threatened By Unsustainable Palm Oil Production." World Wildlife Fund.

  3. "8 Things to Know About Palm Oil." World Wildlife Fund.