Article: Should You Avoid Palm Oil?

Category: , / 6/02/2014
Image courtesy of Pacific Rim Images
 I am passionate about natural products and the environment. I think it's vital to be an informed consumer, but sometimes it feels like the natural health community sensationalizes certain food and beauty "hazards". There is widespread outcry against sugar one week, and then sugar alternative agave a week later. Ingredients such as parabens, proplyene glycol, and micro beads have all come under fire in recent years. It can be hard to know if you should truly avoid a product or if pseudoscience is the root of an unnecessary witch hunt.

So when I watched a documentary called Years of Living Dangerously, I was a little surprised to see the effects of palm oil harvesting in Indonesia. Yet I wanted to do more research. Even well-intentioned documentaries can present a biased view. Palm oil is used in a wide variety of foods and beauty products - including natural and organic products. Is it really worth the time, effort, and expense to boycott it?

What's wrong with palm oil?
The problem isn't the oil - it's how it is produced. In Indonesia and Malaysia, staggering amounts of tropical rainforest have been cleared for palm oil plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, "up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour" (source). This widespread deforestation has devastating effects. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released, accelerating climate change. Indigenous people are forced from their homes. Habitat loss is pushing orangutans and many other species to the brink of extinction. This isn't just pseudoscience; unsustainable palm oil production is a legitimate and scientific crisis. For more information, see sites such as Say No to Palm Oil.

What about sustainable palm oil?
Image courtesy of Pacific Rim Images
Some companies have responded to consumer outcry by seeking out sustainable palm oil. Whole Foods Market, for example, "pledges that it will only use sources of palm oil independently verified and certified to these criteria in our private label brand products by 2012" (source). Companies such as Dr. Bronner's continue to use palm oil, but from a different source. "Our palm oil is produced ethically from sustainably-harvested palm fruits in Ghana’s Eastern Region...We buy palm fruits exclusively from 500 small organic family farms. These farms were developed without the widespread clear-cutting of rainforest and resulting devastation to local primates that are common nowadays with many of the newer, larger-scale palm oil plantations" (source). However, there is also widespread debate over whether or not palm oil production can truly be sustainable.

What can I do to help?
You can exercise your power of choice as a consumer, and make your voice heard.
  • Spread the word. Write emails or letters to your favorite companies, asking them to remove palm oil from their products. Talk to your favorite health food stores and voice your concerns. Share this post with health- and environmentally-conscious friends. Click here for more ideas.
  • Stop buying products with palm oil. See more on this below.
  • Donate to charities that support reforestation. Larger charities include the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy. To more directly support palm oil-affected areas, consider The Orangutan Project and Deforest Action.

Which of my foods and beauty products contain palm oil?
Many sources state that as many as half of all packaged food products contain palm oil. This isn't limited to conventional grocers; natural and health food stores contain foods with palm oil as well. Check products you regularly buy for palm oil. Keep in mind that it may be hiding under one of these other names.

The beauty products that commonly contain palm oil include soaps, lotions, creams, and lip products. Palm oil can also be found in a variety of other products, such as eyeliners and lip liners. Read ingredient lists and write to companies if you aren't sure of an ingredient's source.

Burt's Bees offers a soap free of palm oil.
Where can I find products free of palm oil?
If you have already made an effort to reduce your use of packaged and processed foods, you are much less likely to run into palm oil. For example, Whole Foods Market 365 brand organic peanut butter contains palm oil, but their fresh grind peanut butter (found in the bulk food section) does not. Look for products that are fresh and/or closer to their natural form. Instead of microwave popcorn (containing palm oil), buy popcorn in bulk and prepare it with an air popper or in a pan with an alternative oil. Natural and health food stores may be your best bet for avoiding palm oil - if you know where to look.

Also seek out beauty products that are free from palm oil. Look for soaps with other bases, such as glycerin or olive oil (click here for a list of soaps made without palm oil). If you find yourself faced with a choice between regular palm oil and sustainable palm oil, choose the sustainable option. If you are having trouble finding an alternative product, write to your favorite natural beauty companies to request the removal of palm oil. I suspect cosmetic companies will be slower to remove palm oil than food manufacturers, but make the best choices you can in the meantime. Click here for reviews of products made without palm oil and here for some palm-oil free brands.

Should I stop using palm oil?
If you want to help slow climate change, preserve our precious rainforests, and save the orangutans, then reducing or eliminating your use of palm oil is a great place to start. Do your own research and decide for yourself. Sometimes you might be faced with tricky decisions, such as choosing a product free of palm oil over an organic or vegan product. While concerns about palm oil have been emerging for years, the reduction of palm oil isn't yet mainstream. Products free of palm oil don't have to be expensive, but the reality is that the oil is cheap and easy to use. However, it seems that using palm oil has a hidden cost that we may not see for years to come. If you can afford it, why not put your hard-earned dollars toward products that will help the earth be a better place for our children?

I wouldn't ask you to do something I couldn't do myself. I made the pledge to do my best to avoid palm oil as much as possible. I will read labels on the products I buy - even the old standbys. I'm not going to stop wearing makeup or eating packaged foods entirely. There are times when you don't have many choices, particularly when you're traveling. In cases where it's very difficult to avoid palm oil, I will write to companies to ask for the oil to be removed. In future reviews, I will call out whether or not a product contains palm oil or its derivatives. These are simple steps that I can take, and I feel that it is my responsibility as a conscious consumer to do what I can to help.

Disclosure notice: Some companies mentioned in this article may have sent me products for review free of charge. No additional compensation was accepted and the opinions are my own. Please verify any claims with the manufacturer, especially if you have any allergies or concerns.

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