Palm oil: Sounds innocuous enough, right? Maybe the name even conjures the pleasant image of a tropical palm tree waving on a sun-drenched beach. Unfortunately, this oil, found in hundreds of processed foods and other household products, could be threatening your health and that of one of the world’s most endangered species: the orangutan.
The problem with palm oil
For starters, palm oil is very high in saturated fat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Diets high in saturated fat have been linked to chronic disease, specifically coronary heart disease.” And the American Heart Association links saturated fats to increased cholesterol levels, which can up your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Alarmingly, chips made with palm oil contain 75 percent more saturated fat than chips made with sunflower or canola oil! Palm kernel oil, which is palm oil harvested from the pit rather than the fruit, contains even more fat, plus it cannot be obtained organically, as the oil must be extracted from the pit with a gasoline-like hydrocarbon solvent. (Sounds delicious, right?)
Manufacturers like palm oil for its stability (read: longer shelf life) and melting characteristics, but the bottom line is that palm oil is a cheap, unhealthy fat that is primarily used by companies to increase profits.
The health hazards alone might be enough to convince some people to purge palm oil from their diets, but let’s move on to an even hairier concern…
Behold the incredibly gentle, highly intelligent and insanely adorable orangutan.
Orangutans are found only in the tropical lowland rain forests of the Asian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Due primarily to habitat destruction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the Bornean orangutan as “Endangered” and the Sumatran orangutan as “Critically Endangered.”
And the single greatest threat to orangutans? The rapidly expanding palm oil industry.
As the palm oil industry slashes and burns the rain forests to make way for palm oil plantations, some orangutans are killed in the deforestation process, and the rest are left displaced, homeless and orphaned. Here are some facts that you need to know:
- Orangutans are found only in tropical environments, and are limited to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
- Orangutans live in lowland rain forests and spend up to 90 percent of their lives in trees, even nesting and sleeping up there at night.
- These rain forests are being cleared at the rate of 300 football fields per hour to make way for palm oil plantations.
- Displaced orangutans who wander into farmland are considered agricultural pests and are often killed.
- At this rate, endangered orangutans will likely be extinct within 10-20 years.
How to avoid palm oil
Unfortunately, palm oil is found in a variety of products, ranging from candy bars to toothpaste to makeup, and rarely is it clearly labeled. In fact, there are more than 170 different names that sneaky manufacturers use on their packaging to avoid saying the words “palm oil”! That may make purging palm oil products from your cabinets and shopping list sound overwhelming, but I’ve rounded up some easy tips for doing so — ones that don’t include memorizing all 170 names!
Here are six reliable ways to avoid palm oil:
1. The most common name palm oil is disguised under is “vegetable oil.”
2. Most prepackaged snack foods made by corporate giants (Nestle, Unilever, etc.) contain palm oil.
3. If a product's saturated fat content makes up more than 40 percent of its total fat content, it will almost always contain palm oil.
4. Ingredients with the word 'palm' in them are palm oil or are derived from the oil palm fruit.
5. If you’re not sure whether a product contains palm oil, either type the product name into your search engine along with 'palm oil' and scan the search results, or contact the company and ask if they use palm oil.
6. To avoid palm oil, choose products that contain clearly labeled oils, such as 100-percent sunflower oil, corn oil, olive oil, coconut oil or canola oil.
Sustainable palm oil?
You may well wonder, “Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil?” Unfortunately, less than seven percent of the total production of palm oil is certified as sustainable, as most companies refuse to pay the premium associated with less-destructive farming practices.
Furthermore, many sources involved in the palm oil controversy regard sustainable palm oil as an unreliable and unenforced classification, a disheartening claim that we have heard all too often when it comes to other certifications such as “natural,” “free range,” “humane,” and even "organic."
That said, as of 2012, Whole Foods has pledged to no longer use palm oil sourced from the conversion of rain forest ecosystems or from large companies engaged in the conversion of natural forests and/or peat lands in their 365 Everyday Value™ and Whole Foods Market™ brands. This, at the very least, is a great first step, since palm oil is a common ingredient in many power bars sold in health food stores!
Sarah McCluskey has been doing nonprofit work in the animal welfare field for almost a decade. She lives in Boulder, Colo., with her two rescue dogs and works for Animal Help Now.