What is Palm Oil?
Palm Oil comes from the Elaeis Guineensis plant which originated in West Africa and grows abundantly in hot, wet climates. It is the most widely produced oil in the world (eclipsing soybean oil) with around 90% of all palm oil, coming from Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm Oil is a high yielding crop which takes between 3-4 years to mature and produce fruit. The palm fruit itself, develops in bunches which can grow in excess of 10 kilograms, and contain hundreds of individual fruits about the size of a small plum or apricot. When the fruit is harvested, palm oil is extracted from the flesh of the fruit and palm kernel oil is produced by squeezing the oil from the internal seed. It’s an incredibly versatile oil which is used in roughly 50% of items found on supermarket shelves including cleaning products, shampoos, soaps, candles, food items, vegetable oils, toothpaste and even bio-fuels.
What is the RSPO?
The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil for people, planet and prosperity. The RSPO website states there are 8 principles for growers to be RSPO certified.
- commitment to transparency
- compliance with applicable laws and regulations
- commitment to long term economic and financial viability
- use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
- environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
- responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
- responsible development of new plantings
- commitments to continuous improvement in key areas of activity
But a manufacturer can claim to be a member of the RSPO without actually sourcing certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), so consumers need to be aware that just because RSPO is mentioned in brand statements, it doesn’t mean that brand is always using certified sustainable oil. Currently there are only 4-5 palm oil companies (out of about 90 RSPO companies) whose palm oil can legitimately be traced back to a sustainable plantation with 100% certainty. Some of the biggest palm oil companies in the world are RSPO members including Grail, Sonar Mas, Willmar, and Unilever but investigations on the ground suggest some companies are NOT adhering to their promised commitments, and are continuing to pull down virgin rainforest. Under RSPO guidelines, a palm oil company must not develop new plantations on forested areas that have been cleared after 2005 and are not to use burning to clear forested areas. Both are still happening. Rainforests continue to be cleared at a staggering rate of 300 football fields an hour. Look it’s true that the RSPO has brought much needed publicity to the issue, but until all companies start producing certified sustainable palm oil, which is 100% traceable, it’s difficult to have trust in any of the RSPO companies. Also we have to understand that consumer pressure for companies to demand certified sustainable palm oil is a powerful force. The RSPO is definitely a step in the right direction but consumers need to dig deeper into company history and ask the right questions, to get a true indication of the company’s commitment to certified sustainable palm oil. For example companies may say…
“We use minimal palm oil ingredients in our products”
Most companies state their minimal use but if you combine all these companies together, you begin to see a more accurate picture.
Ask the company what they consider to be minimal use. Many will give a percentage of worldwide usage. This way it looks like a tiny amount, For example, one company stated, “only a small amount (less than 0.05%) of the total 40 million metric tonnes of palm oil produced annually.” However, we calculated this to be around 20 thousand metric ton, so ask how many tons they use per annum.
“We don’t use Palm Oil, we only use derivatives”
It’s astounding how many companies and brands claim they don’t use Palm Oil when the ingredients are clearly derivatives of Palm Oil. We have come across company statements that deny any use of Palm Oil in their products, however, when we question them further them then state they do use the derivatives but not the oil. This is extremely confusing for the consumer.
It must be understood that a derivative of Palm Oil IS Palm Oil usage. It’s the same thing. You can dress it up with all manner of disguises but palm oil and palm oil derivatives are PALM OIL.
Sometimes companies will say…
“The company supports the production of sustainable palm oil and is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)”
Remember even though a company is a member of the RSPO it does not necessarily mean that they are purchasing certified sustainable palm oil.
It means they have made a commitment to EVENTUALLY purchase sustainable palm oil, in most cases that commitment is to be in place by 2015.
What’s wrong with Palm Oil?
There are a multitude of issues here. Firstly palm oil itself is full of saturated fat and widely believed by most health experts to be bad for your health. But from an environmental point of view, the way in which palm oil is farmed and manufactured, leads to the destruction of the orangutan’s rainforest habitat. Because this mono culture is at odds with existing Malaysian and Indonesian rainforest ecosystems, it is also destroying the biodiversity of the region. The establishment of palm oil plantations on top of existing peat soils, which were until recently covered by peat swamp forests, leads to the release of massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Due to increasing demand for palm oil, virgin rainforests are being decimated at a staggering rate, leaving orangutans nowhere to live. Displaced and confused, and having lost their source of food, the orangutans inevitably wander into the plantations, only to be killed by plantation workers, who often view them as pests. There are cases where orangutans have been run over by excavation equipment, doused in petrol and burnt alive, captured, tortured and shot. There are also bounties placed on orangutans because the mothers and babies are valuable on the illegal pet trade.
We should point out here, that much of the rainforest destruction is happening in forests which are already protected habitat. How can that happen you ask? Well some of the logging is illegal and some of it is condoned by authorities. Either way, it is a diabolical situation, with more than 300 football fields of rainforest destroyed every hour in south East Asia to make way for more palm oil plantations.
World Wildlife Fund estimates there are already 20 million hectares of abandoned land in Indonesia that could be used for palm oil plantations, but many palm oil companies “double dip”, but squeezing extra profits from the virgin rainforest timber.
Be a Palm Detective
In Australia and New Zealand, there are only 3 vegetable oils which must, by law, be labelled due to the increasing incidence of food allergies. They are peanut oil, sesame oil and soybean oil.
All other vegetable oils can be labelled as vegetable oil. However, the label must declare the amount of saturated fat in the product.
To simplify, oils fall into 3 main categories:
- Polyunsaturated e.g. sunflower
- Monounsaturated e.g. canola, olive
- Saturated e.g. palm, coconut
Typically, if the label declares “vegetable oil” and is high in saturated fat, then there is a very high likelihood that the oil base is palm oil, with the exception of coconut oil.
PALM SUGAR is NOT Palm Oil. Palm Sugar is manufactured and harvested in a completely different way, so palm sugar is completely safe.
Vegetable Gum is also NOT Palm Oil, so it is also safe.
Isn’t E471 palm oil?
Not always. An E number gives no indication as to the source of the ingredient it came from. E471 is an emulsifier, used to bind our oils & water together so a product does not separate. E471 can come from palm oil, coconut oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil or canola oil.
Below is a comprehensive list of alternative names for Palm Oil. Unfortunately the list is HUGE, but it is in alphabetical order for easier reference. As it is not always easy to carry around and refer to such a long list, for convenience, you may like to download our Palm Oil Wallet Card containing the more common alternate names for palm oil, as a reference for when you are shopping.
Palm Oil Card
IF YOU WOULD LIKE US TO POST YOU A PALM OIL CARD, PLEASE SEND A STAMPED SELF ADDRESSED ENVELOPE TO –
Palm Oil Card
11 Balmoral Avenue
Sorrento Qld 4217
Alternative names for Palm Oil
Acetic and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472a/E472a)
Aluminium, calcium, sodium, magnesium salts of fatty acids (470/E470a; E470b)
Ammonium laureth sulphate
Ammonium lauryl sulphate
Ascorbyl palmitate (304)
Calcium oleyl lactylate
Calcium stearoyl lactylate (482/E482)
Citric and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472c/E472c)
Cocoa butter equivalent (CBE)
Cocoa butter substitute (CBS)
Diacetyltartaric and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472e/E472e)
Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate
Disodium lauryl sulfosuccinate
Distilled Monoglyceride Palm
Elaeis guineensis oil
Emulsifier 422, 430-36, 470-8, 481-483, 493-5
Epoxidized palm oil (uv cured coatings)
Ethyl lauroyl arginate (243)
Ethylene glycol monostearate
Fatty alcohol sulphates
Glycerin or glycerol (442)
Glyceryl stearate SE
Hydrogenated palm glycerides
Isopropyl titanium triisostearate
Lactic and fatty acid easters of glycerol (472b/E472b)
Lauric acid Lauroyl sarcosine
Lauryl glucoside (from palm)
Mixed tartaric, acetic and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472f/E472f)
Mono-and- di-glycerides of fatty acids (471/E471)
Myristic Cetrimonium Chloride Acid
Octyldodecyl stearoyl stearate
Palm fruit oil
Palm kernel oil
Palmitoyl myristyl serinate