We’re constantly encouraged to avoid palm oil in our products, but is that really the best way to go? If so, how do we do this? What are the alternatives and are they actually better?
Palm oil is a inexpensive versatile form of oil used in so many products you wouldn’t even believe, like bread, sauces, biscuits, crisps, ready meals, ice cream, soap, shampoo, detergents, lipsticks and biodiesel!
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It’s not always possible to know if a product has palm oil in it. If you live outside of Europe palm oil can sometimes be just listed as vegetable oil and although palm oil must be clearly labelled as palm oil in Europe (since 2014), there are over 200 ingredients that can be derived from palm oil so it can be listed as one of those. Here a list of other names that palm oil can goes by.
What’s the issue with Palm Oil?
Palm oil is a victim of it’s own success. It’s versatility, low cost and high yield has made it so popular that precious carbon-capturing forests are being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations. This has devastated the habitats of a huge number of animals including the orangutan, who are a threatened species as a result.
So none of us want to support deforestation but What to do?
One option that’s often suggested is to choose certified sustainable palm oil, including those certified by
- Palm Done Right are championing organic palm oil farmers in an effort to safeguard a future for sustainable palm oil production, currently their products seem to only exist in America.
- Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). is a global, multi-stakeholder organisation with members that include plantation companies, processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, financial institutions, environmental NGOs and social NGOs. It’s the certification scheme that you tend to see on products in supermarkets here in Ireland.
Unfortunately there are grave concerns over the credibility of some sustainable palm oil certification schemes, and so it would seem that simply buying certified sustainable palm oil doesn’t complete solve the issue.
Another option is to buy palm-oil free products. We are seeing more and more products being certified as being palm-oil free by organisations including;
- The International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark, which appears to be a non-profit set up by female professionals from the business, education, research & government sectors to support palm oil free products.
- The Orangutan Alliance, which is an industry-based, non-profit and registered charity promoting the reduction of non-sustainable palm oil in consumer products through it’s palm oil free certification program.
- The supermarket Iceland, who have their own Palm Oil-free labelling system
But that itself is not without it’s issues. Some researchers argue that per volume of oil produced, coconut production affects more species than any other oil crop, including oil palm. However, I should point out that the author of that article, is funded by RSPO and the calculations in one of his studies has been called into question by Asa Feinstein, founder and CEO of CocoAsenso, a social enterprise that purchases coconuts directly from farmers in the Philippines. In Feinstein’s article Coconut Oil does not threaten more species than palm oil he outlines the flaws in Meijaard’s calculations and draws attention to the fact that palm oil is listed as a threat to more species on the IUCN Red list of endangered species than coconut oil, although I’ve attempted to get access to where this is stated on the IUCN website but to no avail. This is a repeated problem with imported food stuff. It’s often so hard to get clear information and there are lots of people invested in muddying the waters.
You may have read how night-time harvesting of olive oils with vacuum machines was leading to the deaths of thousands of birds in Portugal and Spain. Well I’m delighted to report that after pressure from animal welfare and conservation groups the practice of night-time harvesting of olives was banned in March 2020.
Land use is another way in which oil can impact on biodiversity and carbon capture efforts. The more land we use to grow oil crops the less we have for food, wildlife and carbon-capturing vegetation.
As you can see in this graph, palm trees use far less land than other oil producing crops. Putting these numbers in context, if global oil was supplied solely from palm, we’d need 52 million hectares, around six times less than we currently use. If we got it from rapeseed we’d need an area similar to the size we use today; from coconuts, an area the size of Canada; and in the most extreme case, we’d have to devote 2.3 billion hectares to sesame seeds – a bit more than Canada, the USA, and India combined.
Why does land use matter? Well the less land we use for agriculture the more we can devote to carbon-capturing and biodiversity boosting habitats.
There is a caveat though (are you sick of caveats yet?) As pointed out on amazingly informative website Our World in Data, devoting fields in Europe to sunflowers isn’t the same as protecting primary forests full of endangered biodiversity in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Based on this analysis it seems as if our long-term aim should be to increase carbon-absorbing, biodiversity-rich habitats worldwide, but that in the short term it might be best to prioritise facing immediate risk and with the largest current potential for carbon capture.
The best way to extract yourself from the whole palm oil debate is to reduce your overall intake of oils and to prioritise locally-grown oil where you can.
I know, I know! Here I go again with my reduce, reuse mantra! Yes, you’re right. To be honest it really is the only solution with so many things and you’ll be surprised at how little oil you can get away with when you’re clever about it.
Here are some tips to get you started.
- Save oil from cooking non-processed meat to fry vegetables in. Collecting fat that renders out of meat to use later not only saves you money, it reduces your reliance on oil products.
- Steam or broil food instead of frying.
- Don’t deep fry. Not only is this very bad for your health it wastes a huge amount of oil, which you then have to dispose of. If your a real fried foods fan then trial an air fryer to see if it can give you the fix you need with far less oil. A word of warning though, air fryers are heavy on energy consumption!
- Learn how to seal your stainless steel and cast iron pans so that you can use less oil when frying.
- Cost the food not the pan. By rubbing some oil on veg or meat you can get away with using far less then if you simply pour it on the pan.
- Sometimes products have oil added them for silly reasons, which you can avoid. For example oil is added to raisins to prevent them from clumping together. Personally I’d rather have lumpy raisins and avoid the oil.
- Also buying better quality can help avoid added oil. For example high-quality nut butters are often just blended nuts, and a bit of seasoning, while less-expensive products may use added oil to fill it out. Similarly chocolate can often have oil or dairy added to bulk it out.
If you’re going to use oil for cooking I suggest it’s best to buy locally grown. Not because it’s the definitely the most sustainable option – see point above about land use – but because we have better connection with the producer of the product, which is important when we want to push for change or get information.
For example if our demand for oil is outstripping our ability to grow crops for consumption at home here in Ireland, we’re well place to resolve that issue. Whereas if the problem exists in another country half-way across the world, we’re more likely to ignore it and people in that country suffer on our behalf.
One locally-grown oil to look out for is Organic Rapeseed Oil by Second Nature. I find it has a very strong flavour so might not suit all dishes but it’s great for salads and strongly favoured dishes. Do you know of others?
Sorry not to be able to give you a ‘just buy this’ solution to the problem of palm-oil. Sometimes in the adult world there just isn’t a way to buy our way out of an issue. We just have to pull up our socks and get on with the tricky task of simply doing the best we can.