The Facts on Palm Oil


Posted 11/01/2019

We decided to write this article about palm oil due to the number of enquires we get as to whether we consider palm oil vegan or if we have a palm oil status in our Fussy Vegan Scanner app. The main purpose of our app is to let users know if a product is vegan or not. With the exception of animal testing (which affects the vegan status of a product) we do not get into other ethical concerns.
It is not that we do not care about other ethical concerns, it is just not the scope of our app. In fact, this article is not normally a topic we would get in depth about, but given the amount of disinformation that some people spread about palm oil on the internet, especially on vegan Facebook group pages, we thought it would be important clarify the reality of palm oil. Let’s start with simple answers to palm oil and our Fussy Vegan Scanner app, and then we will get more in-depth about the reality of palm oil below.
Is palm oil vegan? Yes as palm oil is a plant derived ingredient and no animal ingredients are used in the processing of palm oil. That is the simple answer. Read the full article below to get a more detailed answer.
Does our app have the palm oil status of a product? The simple answer is no. As we said above, you will have to read the entire article for a more detailed explanation. Having said that, we do state whether a product uses sustainable palm oil if that information for the particular product is easily available.
Ok, so let’s get into the myths and truths about palm oil. Let us start by saying that we do not have any financial or other relationships with any of the companies or organisations discussed in this article.
What is palm oil? Simply put, palm oil is a vegetable fat obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree. There are two main species of oil palm trees. Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85% of the worlds palm oil production. Palm oil is also produced in Africa and South America.
Why is palm oil so widely used? Palm oil is so widely used because it has a higher yield per hectare of land than other comparable vegetable oil sources, such as soy, canola, rapeseed and sunflower. In some cases, such as with soy, Palm oil yields 10 times the amount of product for each hectare of land compared to soy.
What is palm oil used for? Palm oil is the most used vegetable oil in the world. Palm oil in some form can be found in more than half of the manufactured food and health/beauty products available in the world. Palm oil has a high resistance to oxidation, providing a longer shelf life. Palm oil is neutral in taste, in contrast to alternatives such as coconut oil. It is particularly useful as an affordable ingredient in food products such as spreads, chocolate, ice cream, cookies, cakes, confectionery and margarines.
Does palm oil have to be listed as an ingredient in a product? In regards to food products, no. At least not directly. Palm oil is so widely used, that it would be almost (not impossible) to completely avoid it unless you started growing your own food entirely. But if like most people, you eat manufactured or processed foods, you are most likely eating some form of palm oil. Palm oil may be listed as palm oil in an ingredients list, or it could be listed as one of the many approved additives that might have palm oil in them, or it could be listed as vegetable oil. In some cases, it may not be listed at all in any form.
The current Food Labelling Standards in Australia and New Zealand state that any ingredient that is not a declared allergen (of which palm oil is not) does not have to be listed as an ingredient in a product if that ingredient is a compound ingredient and makes up less than 5% of the total ingredients of the product (such as pizza sauce on a pizza), with the only exceptions being declared allergens. So even if you were trying to avoid palm oil, unless the product specifically states that it contains no palm oil, then it is virtually impossible to tell if it contains palm oil or not.
Why do I hear people talking about avoiding palm oil? Quite frankly, whilst there would be some people that have actually done extensive research into palm oil and its effect on the environment, most people have just heard it somewhere, or have seen an extreme anti-palm oil activists talk about it in facebook comments, often hijacking discussions about whether a product is vegan or not. We will discuss in more detail below about why you should not avoid palm oil.
Should I avoid palm oil? That depends on why you want to avoid palm oil. If you want to avoid palm oil for health reasons, then that is a topic outside of the scope of this article. If you are thinking about or do currently avoid palm oil due to the potential destruction of rainforest or loss of animal habitat, then no you should not avoid palm oil. You should however try to use products that contain RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. In fact, a lot of products that label themselves as palm oil free actually contain less environmentally friendly oils such as soy.
What is RSPO? The Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil is a non profit group that unites stakeholders from the seven sectors of the palm oil industry: oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors and environmental and social NGOs, to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. The purpose of the RSPO is to develop and implement global standards for the sustainable use of palm oil.
What is RSPO certified sustainable palm oil? RSPO certified sustainable palm oil is palm oil that has been certified by the non profit group called the Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil. You can read more about RSPO certification on the RSPO website. Most of the major food companies in the world have made commitments to using RSPO certified palm oil.
What companies use RSPO certified sustainable palm oil? Below is a list of some of the major food companies that use RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. Together, the below companies account for over 85% of the products found in Australian grocery stores:
Campbell’s Soup Company 100% of palm oil used comes from RSPO certified sources.
Conagra Brands 100% of palm oil used is from RSPO certified sources.
Coles Supermarkets* 100% of palm oil used in food and drink products is from RSPO certified sources. Coles is also moving to sustainable palm oil and palm derivatives in their Coles brand homecare, health, beauty and baby products. While these changes are being made, Coles offset the use of palm oil in Coles brand non-food products by purchasing PalmTrace certificates which support sustainable palm oil farmers and processes.
General Mills 100% of palm oil comes from RSPO certified sources.
The Kellogg Company 100% of palm oil comes from RSPO certified sources.
Kraft Heinz 100% of palm oil comes from RSPO certified sources.
Mars Incorporated 100% of palm oil used comes from RSPO certified sources.
Mondelez International 100% of palm oil comes from RSPO certified sources since 2013.
Nestle 58% of total palm oil production purchased in 2017 was responsibly sourced and Nestle is committed to purchasing 100% RSPO certified palm oil by 2020.
PepsiCo In 2017, 32% of palm oil used was from RSPO certified sources. Goal for 2018 is 50% and 100% by 2020.
Proctor & Gamble 100% of palm oil used is from RSPO certified sources.
Unilever 80% of palm oil used in 2018 was from RSPO certified sources, and will be 100% by the end of 2019.
Woolworths* 100% of palm oil used is from RSPO certified sources.
*Please note that with Coles and Woolworths, we are talking about the supermarket branded products, not every product sold in the relevant supermarket.
As we stated previously, the companies we listed above account for over 85% of the grocery products available in Australian supermarkets. It is clear that the grocery industry as a whole takes sustainable palm oil seriously. That is not to say that there couldn’t be improvements, but it is certainly not the bleak situation that you may have heard about.
Does palm oil production contribute to the destruction of rainforest habitat for wildlife, including endangered Orangutans? Yes. But let’s be clear here. All mass production agriculture contributes in some way or another to the destruction of habitat for various wildlife. Millions of animals are also killed each year in the protection of crops as well, even if further habitat is not destroyed. Whilst there is a lot of focus on palm oil, there is not much focus on most other crops that are mass produced for human use. This is the reality of human impact on the planet. Now, let’s keep the focus on palm oil here, as this article could turn into a whole book if we start talking about the affects of mass agriculture on the environment. By purchasing RSPO certified sustainable palm oil, you are at least making a conscious decision to try and minimise the impact of your environmental footprint on the planet.
What would happen if everyone stopped buying products made with palm oil? The production of palm oil supports the livelihoods of millions of people in poorer countries around the world, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. The reality is that these people are going to continue to try and support their families, if not with palm oil then with some other crop. As we stated previously in this article, palm oil production is actually more efficient than other crops, using anywhere from half to up to ten times less land than other crops for a similar production output. Palm oil production also uses far less water than other types of crop production. Are we really naive enough to think that these people are just going to stop growing palm oil and replant the forest? And what just lay down and die? Let’s be realistic about it. Yes, continuing to destroy rainforest for any crop is bad for the environment, but we can minimise the negative effects on the environment by purchasing sustainable palm oil.
What do others have to say about palm oil? Below we have listed what some major organisation have to say about palm oil:
The Vegan Society The founder of the Vegan Society actually coined the term vegan. The Vegan Society states the following in regards to palm oil:
Is palm oil vegan? In itself, palm oil is a vegetable product which does not need to involve the (ab)use of animals, and therefore is suitable for vegans. The palm oil and palm timber industries are rife with very bad practices. In the EU, palm oil used in food must now be labelled, but ingredients derived from palm oil in food and non-food products still do not have to be labelled. So it is not possible for consumers to 'boycott' palm products. Instead, ending the abuses of the palm tree (oil and timber) industries requires co-ordinated action by non-vegans and vegans, consumers and policymakers and industry etc., together.
As even the Vegan Society considers palm oil to be vegan, I think we can at least put to bed the issue of whether palm oil is vegan or not.
PETA People For Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) state the following in regards to palm oil:
Orangutans and other animals are negatively affected by the spread of palm oil plantations, and for this reason, some people choose to avoid products containing palm oil. PETA supports the move towards truly sustainable palm oil operations that (among other things) use land that is already cleared, invest in increasing crop yield and refrain from clearing land for new plantations. Although some groups call for a boycott of palm oil products or companies that use palm oil, many environmental and animal-protection groups – including ones that focus on the well-being of primates displaced by palm oil plantations – agree that such a boycott would result in two major problems:
1. It would drive the price of palm oil down to a point where already-high demand is further increased.
2. It would promote the development of other tropical oils that are less efficiently grown than palm oil and would contribute to more deforestation and habitat loss. To those who can avoid all tropical oils, we say, Go for it. Purchasing locally obtained, tropical oil–free foods and household products is a great way to ensure ethical sustainability. We also encourage consumers to contact companies that have been dragging their feet on this important issue. Urge them to commit to using truly sustainable palm oil and let them know you won’t buy their products until they do so.
WWF The World Wildlife Fund state the following in regards to palm oil:
Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Globally, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land. To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean or coconut oil you would need anything between 4 and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species. Furthermore, palm oil is an important crop for the GDP of emerging economies and there are millions of smallholder farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihood. Boycotting palm oil is not always the answer, but demanding more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster, is.
The Sumatran Orangutan Society state the following in regards to palm oil:
Whilst we appreciate that individuals may wish to distance themselves from the threat the industry poses to orangutans and their habitat, we do not believe that boycotting palm oil is the solution. It is the most productive oil crop in the world, so much more land would need to be sacrificed if companies switched to using an alternative.
For example, it would take up to 10 times as much land to produce the same amount of soybean oil. Also, boycotting palm oil could drive the price down. It would then become more attractive for biofuels and livestock feed, and possibly lead to increased demand, especially in India and China, the biggest importers of palm oil.
In addition, over 4.5 million people in Indonesia currently rely on the palm oil industry as their primary source of income. All agriculture has a footprint, and palm oil is here to stay. What we need to do is ensure that it is cultivated in the least damaging way possible. Oil palms do not need to be grown at the expense of biodiverse forests – we need to demand an end to deforestation for palm oil in order to safeguard orangutans, and the precious rainforests they inhabit.
We would like to state again that we do not make any representations of support for the palm oil industry, we just wanted to make clear what the reality is with palm oil. Some people may not agree with what we have written, and that is okay. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But the facts speak for themselves.