Is palm oil bad, really? By now, you have probably heard that palm oil (PO) is bad. Maybe you’ve been told that you should purchase products that don’t contain it. Or maybe you’ve thought about boycotting brands that use it. But do you know exactly what PO is or why it is found in so many products? Do you know why there is concern about the use of the oil or what is being done to address those concerns? And do you know the challenges in doing so?
While unsustainably produced PO has an undeniably negative environmental impact, the waters surrounding PO production and use are murkier than you might assume.
What Is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is made from the seeds of the oil palm, and it can be found in half of the products we consume. Did you know peanut butter has PO in it? Both the demand and the production of PO has steadily increased over the years. In 1995, there were 15.2 million tons of PO produced. By 2018, that number was 77 million tons. By 2024, production is expected to reach 107.6 million tons.
Today, 10% of the world’s permanent cropland is devoted to PO. There is more demand for the oil than for any other vegetable oil in existence. But why? The answer lies in the unique qualities no other oil can offer.
Why Is Palm Oil Useful?
Palm oil has a light colour and no smell, which means it can easily be added to food. It also contains a large amount of saturated fats, which combined with its high melting point allow it to create creamy textures. That’s why it’s so often found in foods like peanut butter. And it doesn’t need to be partially hydrogenated (a process in which a liquid unsaturated fat is turned into a solid fat by adding hydrogen to create trans-fats), so it won’t create trans-fats like many other oils do. An added bonus is that PO doesn’t spoil easily, and therefore, helps to add shelf-life naturally to food products.
Palm oil is also found in products like shampoo, toothpaste, and cosmetics. It helps create lather, makes products shelf-stable, and works as a moisturizer. It is a useful emulsifier, helping to keep oil and water from separating, making this an amazing ingredient to replace chemical-based Sulphates. These are qualities we expect from products like soap, lotion, and foundation.
It also may surprise you to learn that PO is, in fact, a renewable resource, and all parts of the seed can be used. Both the oil and the kernels are used for fuel. The shells can be made into a material like concrete. And after PO and kernels are burned, the remaining ash can be turned into an alternative to cement.
Additionally, PO is very easy to grow, even in poor soil, and it brings a lot of income to the farmers who produce it. That’s important because PO is produced in poor countries and has played an important role in raising income. In Indonesia and Malaysia alone, 4.5 million people depend on PO production to survive.
So Why is Palm Oil Bad?
Although oil palm tree is extremely useful and is easy to grow, it only grows in the tropics, specifically within a narrow area near the equator. That exact area is also home to the world’s rainforests, which make up the habitat for 80% of all the species that exist on our planet.
In order to make more space available for oil palm plantations, rain forests are cut down and burned. Doing so releases huge amounts of carbon, which was previously stored in the forest, and contributes to global warming.
Deforestation also takes away critical habitat for many endangered species. The orangutan is perhaps one of the most well-known. In just the last 16 years, 100,000 orangutans have died as a result of PO production. Other endangered species, like rhinos, elephants, and tigers also face habitat loss due to rain forests being converted to PO plantations.
There’s a human cost, as well. Although PO has increased incomes and helped lift people out of poverty, there are also allegations of human rights abuse. Workers are reported to lack protections and suffer exposure to chemicals. Some are underpaid and overworked. Children are often found working in the plantations, exposed to the same hazards as adults.
Should We Stop Using Palm Oil?
That seems like the obvious answer, but as with many things in life, it’s not so simple. PO is not easily replaced. Other oils do not have the same qualities, so it’s difficult to find substitutes. As often is the case, trying to substitute other oils is actually less sustainable.
That’s because a given amount of land produces far more PO than other types of oils. For example, 25 times more PO than soybean oil can be made from a plot of land. The same is true for other oils, including rapeseed (5 times more) and sunflower (6 times more).
In order to meet global demand, and because so many people depend on oil production for their livelihoods, substituting other oils would likely lead to even more deforestation than we see with PO production.
Researchers are searching for alternatives to PO. Some are promising, like adding insects to animal feed rather than using PO. For example, chickens were found to have higher quality meat when fed mealworm oil compared to PO.
Other alternatives are so far less viable. For instance, researchers have found that oil from algae works well, but it’s difficult to mass produce. Large quantities would require the algae to be fed with sugar, and that amount of sugar would also likely contribute to deforestation.
So What Can We Do?
For now, the best solution seems to be using certified sustainable PO. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil provides certification and oversight for sustainably produced PO. Choosing to use only sustainable PO ensures that we do not contribute to the ills associated with traditional PO production, and it puts pressure on the industry to change for the better.
In our next blog post, we’ll discuss what makes certified sustainable PO different and why we choose to include it in our NO Soap.
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I am here to help and want to support you on your journey to healthy skin, please contact me directly through [email protected] I would love to hear your experience and answer any questions that you might have.
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Au Natural Skinfood
References for more information on Palm Oil
- How do we go palm oil free? (bbc.com, 14 Jan 2020)
- Palm oil in beauty products: The sustainable guide to navigating this tricky ingredient (stylist.co.uk)
- Sustainable personal care: Moving away from palm oil is ‘not the solution’ – Croda (cosmeticsdesign-asia.com, 5 Aug 2019)
- How the world got hooked on palm oil (theguardian.com, 19 Feb 2019)
- The reason why Palm Oil is so controversial (independent.co.uk, 12 Oct 2019)
- 5 problems with ‘sustainable’ palm oil (greenpeace.org, 6 Nov 2019)
- The European market potential for palm oil alternatives (cbi.eu)
- Check if your favourite brand is committed to a responsible Palm Oil future, free from deforestation and destruction of nature
Cosmetic brands with alternative ingredients
- Sustainable and eco friendly makeup: 14 best ethical beauty brands
- Cosmetics with a clear conscience: Palm oil that can endanger the jungle is widely used in beauty products, FEMAIL picks out the best alternatives
- Morley, D. (2018). Transforming the global palm oil industry to make sustainability the norm. Agro Food Industry Hi-Tech, 29(2), 50-52.
- Teh, S. S., & Mah, S. H. (2018). Stability Evaluations of Different Types of Vegetable Oil-based Emulsions. Journal of oleo science, 67(11), 1381-1387. doi:10.5650/jos.ess18067
- Sitepu, M. H., Matondang, A. R., & Sembiring, M. T. (2020). Sustainability assessment in crude palm oil production: A review.
- Ayompe, L. M., Schaafsma, M., & Egoh, B. N. (2021). Towards sustainable palm oil production: The positive and negative impacts on ecosystem services and human wellbeing. Journal of Cleaner Production, 278. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.123914