5 things you should know about palm oil

August 7, 2015 - 5:01pm

Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil in the world, and the cheapest to produce. It's used in thousands of products, from cookies to lipstick. Indonesia and Malaysia produce about 85 percent of the world's supply, using roughly 53,800 square miles – half the size of Oregon.
The cost: the palm oil industry destroys vital habitats for increasingly endangered orangutans, tigers, Asian elephants and sun bears.
Here are five things wildlife advocates need to know about the issue.

1. You likely consumed palm oil today without knowing it

Palm oil is in an estimated half of all packaged food products sold in American grocery stores. It's in the majority of cosmetics. Most baby formulas, laundry detergents, chocolate bars, toothpastes and shampoos contain palm oil. It can even be found in products as seemingly "additive-free" as cow's milk.

2. Ingredient labels won't always tell you which products contain palm oil

There are hundreds of names for palm oil and its derivatives. An ingredient is derived from palm oil if it includes the word "palm" in it (with the exception of hearts of palm), such as palmate or palmitate. An ingredient may be derived from palm oil if it includes the words "lauryl," "laureth," the prefix "stear-," "vegetable oil," "glycerin" or "emulsifier," to name a few. Grab the closest product to you right now. Is palm oil an ingredient?

3. Boycotting palm oil won't save forests or wildlife

If consumers boycotted palm oil, companies would buy alternative oils that may require up to nine times as much land to produce. Meanwhile, palm oil growers will have even less incentive to produce responsible palm oil. The United States uses only a fraction of the world's supply of palm oil. The vast majority of it is used as cooking oil in China and Southeast Asia. A boycott of palm oil in the U.S. would have little to no impact on global palm oil use.

4. Responsibly produced palm oil does exist

Palm oil producers don't have to cut down forests. They can use degraded land instead of forested land. They can plant higher-yield species of oil palm trees. But they won't do it unless their buyers insist. Unlike dolphin-safe tuna or FSC-certified wood, there's no logo for wildlife-friendly palm oil.

5. When consumers demand responsible palm oil, companies take action

Some American companies like Mars, Smuckers and General Mills have committed to using only deforestation-free palm oil. Others have done little or nothing to cut deforestation from their supply chains. Before you shop, do some research. Identify and buy products from companies that have committed to deforestation-free palm oil. Speak out to businesses that still don't. Find out how companies rank here.