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

You've probably heard of it, but you might not be sure exactly what it's so bad...
  • We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.

  • For a while now, palm oil has been gathering a pretty tricky reputation.

    Over the last couple of years, we’ve been made increasingly aware that the edible vegetable oil, could be causing irreparable harm to the world around us.

    The issue was certainly highlighted in a 2018 Christmas advert Iceland TV advert, which showed how palm oil production destroys forests and animal habitats. Made in collaboration with Greenpeace, it featured 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’.

    But although the advertising regulator Clearcast prohibited Iceland’s advert for being ‘too political’, it was recognised that it highlighted an important world issue.

    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 it 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 the oil is produced.

    Research by Rainforest Rescue showed that the equivalent of 300 football fields are being destroyed every hour. The consequences of this level of deforestation are 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 – but it 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. But be aware that the oil and derivatives of it 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 free of it.

    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

    • Avoid buying products with palm oil. Although this isn’t always easy just switching a few brands in your weekly shop will make a difference.
    • Sign petitions, such as Change.org’s Release Iceland’s banned Christmas Advert on TV and Greenpeace’s Drop Dirty Palm Oil campaign.
    • Support charities such as Greenpeace, WWF, and the Rainforest Foundation, which are trying to put a stop to palm oil production.
    • Follow and circulate the hashtag #nopalmoilChristmas on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

    Latest Stories