Palm Oil: why is it so bad?

More and more often it happened to me to hear people at the supermarket asking if the product they want to buy contains palm oil. Why is that so important? We should all be aware of the risks related to the use of palm oil.

Should we stop eating products containing palm oil? Let’s first start with answering the main question: what is palm oil? Palm oil is a common ingredients in several products we eat every day. But if it comes from a plant and if it is so common, why is it so bad?
Until recently I had no idea palm oil was part of my every day life. It’s one of these minor ingredients you don’t notice on a label; or if you notice it, you simply ignore it. Lately though I have been noticing that come peanut butter packages (a product I use for my snack as it’s rich in protein and vegetable oils) promote the fact they are “palm oil free”. “Is palm oil that bad?” – I thought. And I started reading about it.

Palm Oil: what is it? Palm oil is a globally traded, edible, vegetable oil that derives from pulping the fruit of the oil palms that are native to Africa. palm-oilThis product has spread all over the World and has now become a cooking ingredient not just in Africa but also in Brazil and SouthEast Asia. Recently its consumption has remarkably increased in the US food industry due to the changed labelling requirements that have determined a switch away from using trans fats.

What is palm oil used for? Almost everything. From food to other daily-use products as cereal bars, crackers, cakes, sweets, detergents, soaps, cosmetics and more. Until recently customers like me where quite unaware of the destructiveness related to palm oil production, while lately the awareness is growing, still though having only a little impact of the destruction of tropical forests.foodandbeverages2If it is not in the label, can palm-oil still be present? Yes. It is not a must for a Company to list palm-oil as such. In several countries, it can be listed more generically under the term “vegetable oil”, or one of its derivative like glycerine or emulsifiers (check here the full list). The latter ones are often used in beauty products like shampoo, detergents, mascara and toothpastes.

Why is Palm Oil a Problem? Rainforest Destruction – Palm oil production is an extremely profitable business due to the extended use of this ingredient in so many products we all use. For this reason, palm oil has become one of the world’s main causes of rainforest destruction. Due to the poor legislation on this matter, especially in the past, uncontrolled expansion of palm oil plantations has reached most of the world’s culturally and biologically diverse and extremely delicate ecosystems. Deforestation in Borneo, Indoneisa. According to a World Resources Institute report, as a result of deforestation, some of which is for palm oil, Indonesia is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after the USA and China Species endangerment – The majority of palm-oil used is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia counts 12 percent of world’s known mammals and 17 percent of all known birds. Deforestation of these regions due to palm oil production is among the biggest threats driving iconic wildlife species like the orang-utan (which is near extinction in Indonesia), asian rhynos, elephant monkeys and many other endangered species. Greenhouse effect increase. The destruction of just 1 hectare of carbon-rich peatland leads to the release of up to 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, one of the main gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect. Furthermore the waste-waters from palm-oil processing produce massive amounts of methane, another gas that contributes to the increase of greenhouse effect.


Human rights violations- Palm oil plantation uncontrolled spreading has been unavoidably causing forced removal of Indigenous populations and rural communities from their lands.

Is there any sustainable palm oil? The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm-Oil is an organization founded in 2004. Its aim is to regulate the palm-oil production and trade and to try to stop the deforestation and the related ecological consequences to the whole ecosystem.
This is what’s on the paper. The truth, unfortunately, is quite different. One of the most popular example on this matter is Unilever. While they claim using sustainable palm oil (14,495.23 tonnes of segregated crops from 2013-2014), they don’t say they actually used a total amount of 1,501,578 tonnes of palm oil; it’s obvious therefore that the origin of this huge extra amount of palm oil is unknown and likely not-sustainable. Rescue-IAR_BGA_07 (1)Buying products from a Company that joined the RSPO programme does not mean the palm oil we are eating is necessarily sustainable. Hopefully someday the RSPO will be able to more strictly regulate the palm-oil industry and give to the term “sustainable” a true meaning.

Should I boycott palm oil? I know, the question is controversial and I’d suggest you to read about it and decide yourself. For me the answer is: YES. I have no need to eat products with palm oil. It is interesting to see how some big Companies, accused in the previous years of using non sustainable palm oil, have decided to take action and change their policy on this matter. For a list of some of the major Companies and their commitment to the palm oil cause, you can check this article on “palm oil scorecard 2015“: Nestle, Danone, Kellogs are amongst the most committed, while some others as Kraft, Costco and Avon are poorly committed or non committed at all, and still use non sustainable palm oil. I will keep buying the products that contain sustainable palm oil and will stop buying from the brands that are still not committed to non sustainable palm oil. Though…can palm oil be fully sustainable? Not really; or at least I cannot be fully sure. But at least it’s a first, little step toward a better planet.

8 October 2008Papua Province, Indonesia The sharp contrast between the pristine forest and forest destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations in Papua Province, Indonesia's last intact forest frontier. Greenpeace is calling for an immediate moratorium on all forest conversion in Indonesia to help curb the country's greenhouse gas emissions, safeguard the wealth of tropical biodiversity and protect the livelihood of forest dependent communities.
The contrast between the rainforest and forest destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations in Papua Province, Indonesia

For those of you that would like to know more about this topic, the Rainforest Action Network has an excellent factsheet on palm oil. They have been working on this issue for years and they are one of the best sources of information I have found. And next time you go out for grocery shopping, please check the label.

Hallo! I’m Alessio: an Italian geek with the passion for food and travel. I’m originally from Umbria Region - the Green hearth of Italy - and currently live in London. I’m often on a plane, travelling somewhere either for work or holidays. This is my little corner of the world where I share my tasty recipes, tips on how to cook, restaurants to try and places to visit, including my beautiful Umbria.

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