Palm oil: why it’s bad for the environment and how to avoid palm oil products

The banning of Iceland's TV advert showing how palm oil production destroys forests and animal habitats has highlighted the issue further.

The animated Christmas advert for Iceland food store, which is narrated by actress Emma Thompson and made in collaboration with Greenpeace, features a young girl and an orangutan who asks, ‘There’s a human in my forest and I don’t know what to do. He took away my mother and I’m scared he’ll take me too’.

Unlike the feel-good adverts consumers have come to expect at this time of year, Iceland’s 90-second ad rejects fun and festivities in favour of promoting the company’s commitment to removing palm oil from its own label food by the end of 2018.

But advertising regulator Clearcast prohibited Iceland’s advert for being ‘too political’, causing a public outcry. ‘We understand what an important issue the ad raised and there has been a lot of resulting publicity… but the truth is that it is a matter of broadcasting law,’ said Clearcast managing director Chris Mundy

In response, journalists strongly argued in favour of the ad – which can currently only be seen online – celebrities such as chat show host James Corden and comedian Bill Bailey criticised the ban, and consumers took to the web to debate the issue, with the hashtag #nopalmoilChristmas appearing on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

A poll conducted by OnePulse found that 86 per cent of Brits don’t agree with the ban, and a Change.org petition calling for the ad to be shown on TV was, at the time of writing, close to reaching the required 1 million signatures.

James Corden has opposed the Iceland TV advert ban (Credit: Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock)

What is palm oil?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of palm oil trees and is relatively cheap, which is why it’s proved so popular. It’s versatile, with a long shelf-life and a high melting point that makes it not only useful in cooking and baking, but in making margarine and cosmetics. It’s also used as a biodiesel.

According to organic farmers Riverford, oil palms can yield ‘up to ten times per hectare than rapeseed, soya beans or sunflowers’ and ‘on just 5 per cent of the world’s vegetable-oil farmland, palms produce 38 per cent of the world’s vegetable oil’.

Why is palm oil bad for the environment?

Because palm oil grows in tropical rainforests there has been widespread clearing of forests in order to make way for plantations. The United Nations Environmental Programme stated that the areas most vulnerable to deforestation are those in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the majority of palm oil is produced.

Research by Rainforest Rescue showed that the equivalent of 300 football fields are being destroyed every hour – consequences of this level of deforestation is worryingly high CO2 emissions and a harmful loss of biodiversity. Indonesia is now one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide while the mass clearings have devastated jungles in Sumatra and Borneo, resulting in the loss of habitat for many endangered species such as orangutans, elephants, rhinos and tigers.

What’s more, demand for palm oil is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050.

Orangutans in Indonesia are on the verge of extinction as a result of deforestation (Credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Which products contain palm oil?

While there has been some progress – brands are switching to sustainable or organic palm oil or going palm oil-free – palm oil is still thought to be in around 50 per cent  of the packaged products sold in supermarkets. A recent report released by Greenpeace exposed the depth of the problem, naming 12 companies in particular – including Kellogg’s L’Oreal, Mars and Nestle – that continue to use palm oil from the 20 suppliers most responsible for destroying the habitat of orangutans.

Many products, such as the ones featured here, contain palm oil:

  • Peanut butter: Skippy
  • Ice cream: Wall’s Soft Scoop
  • Chocolate: Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Maltesers
  • Margarine: Flora Buttery Spread
  • Snacks: Twiglets, Ritz Crackers
  • Cookies and biscuits: Maryland Chocolate Chip Cookies, Oreos
  • Bread: Sainsbury’s Garlic Bread Slices
  • Instant noodles: Batchelors Super Noodles
  • Pizza bases and pizza base mix: Tesco’s own
  • Shampoo: Head & Shoulders
  • Soap: Dove Original
  • Lipstick: Max Factor Colour Elixir

The best way to avoid palm oil is to check the ingredients list on the food and household items you buy. Be aware that palm oil and derivatives of palm oil come under many names, including the following:

Vegetable Oil, 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 and Palmityl Alcohol. (Source: WWF)

Products that don’t contain palm oil

An article on Ethical Consumer stated that the best supermarkets for not using palm oil, or that only used sustainable or organic palm oil, are Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. Meanwhile, Iceland has said, ‘By the end of 2018, 100 per cent of our own brand food will contain no palm oil. We are the first UK supermarket to commit to removing palm oil from all own brand food.’

These products don’t use palm oil:

  • Peanut butter: Meridian, Whole Earth
  • Ice cream: Ben & Jerry’s
  • Chocolate: Divine
  • Margarine usually contains palm oil so opt for butter from Yeo Valley and M&S
  • Snacks: Hippeas, Nakd, Yoyo
  • Cookies and biscuits: M&S All Butter Cookies and all shortbread
  • Bread: Warburton’s Danish White and all its gluten-free bread
  • Instant noodles: Kobuto Noodles
  • Soap: Lush’s gourmet soaps
  • Lipstick: Body Shop’s make-up contains sustainable palm oil

Oil palm plantations contributing to deforestation in Borneo, Malaysia (Credit: Vaara/Getty Images)

Alternatives to palm oil

Palm oil production is a valuable source of income in some developing countries and the issue of balancing human need while safeguarding animals and the environment is complicated. There are other sustainable options, such as coconut oil and rapeseed oil, although they’re more expensive, and while companies are increasingly using sustainable or organic palm oil others argue that the most ethical option is to remain completely palm oil-free.

In 2017, an article featured in the Guardian about the quest to find an alternative to palm oil. Suggested options include substitutions derived from types of algae and yeast. There’s hope for the future but it’s a slow process.

What you can do