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Why More People Need to Be Talking About How Palm Oil is Damaging the Environment

Updated: Dec. 09, 2022

There are countless issues grabbing at headlines these days but the environmental crisis caused by rampant and unsustainable palm oil production hasn't yet registered on the world stage. Time may be running out to stop the damage.

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A real-life Lorax

Palm oil hasn’t made headline news as a quiet killer. Though it’s high in saturated fat, there remains a lot of controversy as to whether it’s good for you—or not. One thing we do know for sure is that palm oil is having a disastrous impact on the environment and on an array of wild animals. This is because to get that precious oil, massive swaths of planet Earth are being damaged. The situation is like a real-life The Lorax, where forests are being destroyed to keep “biggering and biggering” a profitable industry.

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What is palm oil?

“Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil high in saturated fats and free of trans fats,” according to Palm Oil Investigations. The watchdog site goes on to explain that oil palm trees ended up in Southwest Asia after being imported from their native West Africa in the mid-19th century. It’s here where the industry is flourishing, “Indonesia and Malaysia account for around 87 percent of global palm oil production,” while orangutan, elephant, tiger and rhino habitats are being destroyed.

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Palm oil vs. trans fat

The removal of unhealthy trans fats via partially hydrogenated oils in the 1990s is at least partially responsible for the situation we are in today, with the widespread adoption of palm oil that dates back 50 years. “In the 1960s, scientists began to warn that butter’s high saturated fat content may increase the risk of heart disease,” reports The Guardian. “Food manufacturers, including the British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, began to replace it [in processed foods] with margarine, made with vegetable oils low in saturated fat.”

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Palm oil is all over the grocery store

The sheer volume of products using palm oil makes rattling them off here rather cumbersome but there are some household names that regularly use palm oil in its packaged foods, including Pepperidge Farm, Luna and Clif Bars, Little Debbie, McDonald’s, and Quaker, to name just a handful. More than two-thirds of palm oil goes into foods.

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Palm oil makes food look and taste better

Part of the reason that palm oil is so prevalent in packaged foods is that it gives foods like chocolates and ice cream a smooth appearance and adds creaminess to cookies, and other baked goods, shares the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Additionally, almost all of the sliced bread in your local grocery store contain palm oil because it’s inexpensive and easy to use.

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You’ll also find it in the beauty aisle

Palm oil is also used in soaps and lipsticks, reports the Guardian. “Unlike other oils, it can be easily and inexpensively ‘fractionated’ — separated into oils of different consistencies—which disposes it to multiple uses” the Guardian reports. As a tasteless ingredient in lipstick, palm oil also has the benefit of holding color well and not melting at high temperatures.

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Demand contributes to deforestation

If palm oil has so many benefits, what makes it so bad for the earth? “Palm oil grows in tropical rainforests, and the uncontrolled clearing of these forests for conventional palm oil plantations has led to widespread loss of these irreplaceable and biodiverse-rich forests,” shares the WWF. The production of palm oil was responsible for 8 percent of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008, reports the BBC—and the demand for the now-ubiquitous oil has only grown in the decade-plus since then.

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The demand for palm oil may cause more animals to go extinct

As more palm oil plantations are planted, the more habitats for Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos, and orangutans are destroyed, which could cause these animals to become extinct, reports the Guardian. Largely because of palm oil production and the shrinking of their sole habitat, the Sumatran Tiger population is believed to be down to just 400, making them one of the most endangered tigers on earth.

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A sustainable way forward

In 2003, the WWF helped to establish, “A group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to get those in the palm oil industry to work together, to stop palm oil production from damaging the planet. Members of the group are given strict guidelines about how they produce their palm oil,” according to the site. In 2014, European Union labeling laws changed so that products have to state specifically if it contains palm oil.

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Buy products without palm oil

Consumer advocate sites like Products Without Palm Oil keep a tab on which foods, coffees, and personal care products are free of palm oil. If you are concerned about the impact palm oil production is having on the planet and its creatures, look for products on the list including Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels, Cape Cod Kettle Cooked Potato Chips, certain flavors of KIND and Clif Kid Organic Z Bars, Trader Joe’s peanut butter, Kraft Jet-Puffed Marshmallows, and any flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in your local supermarkets.