Palm Oil – What you need to know

Halloween is upon us here in the US and that means buying and consuming massive amounts of candy. Much of this candy contains an ingredient that is wreaking havoc on the planet, specifically on the rainforests of Indonesia.  That ingredient is palm oil and it’s not only in chocolate but also in snack foods, soaps, and shampoos.  In fact, palm oil can be found in over 50% of the products in the average US grocery store.  Sometimes it’s plainly listed in the ingredient list and other times it’s masked by other names such as sodium lauryl sulfate.  In fact, there are about 20 other names that are used to reference palm oil so it can be very hard to avoid.  Before we talk about why we should avoid palm oil, let’s learn about what it actually is.

What is palm oil and how is it used?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil that most often comes from the fruit of the African Oil Palm tree.  Palm kernel oil comes from the kernel inside of the palm fruit.  This oil is cheap and can be used in a myriad of ways.  It can be used simply as a frying oil, it makes the foam we love so much in our soaps and shampoos, and it’s a highly sought after ingredient in processed snack food.  Food manufacturers love it because it can take on different characteristics in food and be processed and blended in multiple ways.  Also, it’s cheap.  This is one of the main reasons it’s sought after by food manufacturers.

 What’s the issue?  Why are we talking about this?

The actual palm oil itself if pretty benign.  The problem with palm oil is in how it’s grown.  African Oil Palms, while native to Africa, grow well in any rainy climate.  However, there’s something else that grows really well in rainy climates…Rainforests!  In order to plant these palm oil plantation, swaths of rainforest are being clear cut to make way for them.  When palm oil is being created in this way, it is referred to as conflict palm oil. The place being most effected by this is Borneo.

 Borneo is an island that is part of the Malay Archipelago in Asia.  It is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world and to some pretty incredible animals.  Fun fact, the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are the only places in the world where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans live side by side.

However, these animals are dying in record numbers from habitat loss, being poisoned by plantation owners, or being burned alive as the rainforests are burned down.  Let’s stop and think about that for a minute.  Animals are being poisoned, burned alive, or starved to death so that we can have cheap snack foods. Oh, and let’s not forget foam.  We’re doing this so our soaps and shampoos will be foamy. These snack foods are also killing us by making us overweight and nutrition deprived. In a nut shell, we’re killing animals and clear cutting rainforests so that we can in turn kill ourselves either through poor health and disease or drought.  It’s madness!

Let’s not forget the people who call these Indonesian rainforests home.  They are often displaced and kicked off their land to make way for these plantations.  Some companies even use child labor and forced labor to manufacture palm oil.  Additionally, rainforests are home to thousands of insect, bird, plant, reptile, fish, and mammal species.

Rainforests are important to not only these animals, but also to every person on the planet.  They are the green lungs of our planet.  They absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, help stabilize earth’s climate, and produce large amounts of rainfall.  The water produced in rainforests makes its way all around the globe.  The smaller the rainforest gets, less rain gets produced, and the chances of drought are increased all across the globe.

To see what is going on in Borneo, you can watch this show from National Geographic.

The bottom line is, humans need the rainforest to survive even if we live thousands of miles away from them. 

What can I do to help?

I’m glad you asked because there is so much you can do!  The easiest way to avoid it is to not eat processed food.  While it is easy, it’s also a bit unrealistic.  What you can do is read the label and refuse to buy products with palm oil in them or only purchase those labeled as having certified sustainable palm oil.  An easy way to do this is to download the Palm Oil app on your phone.  This app allows you to scan the barcodes on items to see if the are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO.

You can also call or email the customer service department for products that you want to verify whether or not they contain palm oil.  Recently I was looking for shampoo bars because I wanted to stop buying shampoo in plastic bottles.  I went to a very popular store that claims to use natural ingredients in their products.  I saw that the first ingredient listed on the shampoo bar was sodium lauryl sulfate.  Knowing that this is often derived from conflict palm oil, I emailed their customer service department.  I was told that they could not verify where their palm oil came from.  In other words, they buy their palm oil from a supplier who could not or would not verify the source of the palm oil.  I found this unacceptable and until they can verify their source, I will not spend any more money on their products.

Avoiding products with conflict palm oil and supporting companies that are palm oil free or use certified sustainable and child labor free palm oil are the best things you can do to help.  If you want to donate to organizations that are trying to stop the deforestation and save this precious ecosystem, check out the Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Trust, or Orangutan Foundation International to name a few.

You can also spread the word!  Tell your friends and family about this issue, show them the free app they can download, or share this blog post on social media. Most people simply don’t know that this is going on.  They have no idea that their weekly supermarket trip is contributing to massive rainforest destruction.  Like G.I. Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle!”

Now download the free Palm Oil app and head out to the store to buy your conflict palm oil free Halloween candy today!  The people and animals of Borneo and Sumatra will greatly appreciate it!

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