What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is a fat that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees (Elaesis Guineensis). Not to be confused with coconut oil, which comes from the seed of the coconut palm (Cocos Nucifera).
It is an extremely versatile fat or oil that is used in food, beauty and cleaning products. It has good lathering qualities so it is used in shampoo, soap, hand wash, laundry detergent, washing up liquid, and more. It stays semi-solid at room temperature so it is used in butter alternatives like margarine/spread, as well as nut butters and chocolate spread, not to mention candles, lipsticks and beauty balms. It is grown cheaply so makes a good alternative to animal fats in food products. You will find it in biscuits, chocolate, ice cream, pastry, pizza dough, bread, sauces...basically any jar or packet of ready made/processed food you pick up in a supermarket is likely to have "vegetable oil (palm oil)" in the ingredients list.
Why is PALM OIL Bad?
Because we consume so much palm oil, it needs to be grown in vast amounts. According to Rainforest Rescue, Rainforest area the equivalent to 300 football pitches is being destroyed every hour to make way for plantations for crops like palm oil and soy (the second most in-demand crop, mainly used for animal feed). It grows quickly and efficiently, generating more oil per plant than any other. If we found an alternative to palm oil and grew it in the same way, we would have the same or worse problems. The issue is not really the product but the amount we consume.
Palm Oil, Climate Change and Species Extinctions.
Palm oil is mainly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia where tropical forests once stood. Forest fires are started in order to clear land to make way for these plantations. This not only completely destroys habitats for animals like the Orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, elephants, the giant ant eater (to name a few), as well as wiping out the diverse array of plant life, but it also releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Deforestation accounts for around 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing significantly to climate change. Remember back in 2015 when Indonesia seemed to burn for an entire summer? That was all in aid of palm oil!
Plantations and Pesticides
When you plant only one type of crop over vast areas, disease can spread easily from one plant to another due to the lack of bio diversity. This means that pesticides, fertilisers and chemicals need to be used to control disease and pests from wiping out the entire crop. These chemicals are absorbed by the plants and end up on our dinner plates more often than not. In nature, this threat is overcome by a diverse range of plants growing next to each other, making it difficult for disease to spread. There is nothing natural about vast plantations of the same crop.
Why is Palm Oil Used in Chocolate?
Big chocolate manufacturers want to produce chocolate as cheaply as possible to ensure large profits. It is more profitable to strip the cocoa butter from chocolate and sell it as a commodity on its own (usually to the beauty/cosmetics industry). Palm oil is a cheap replacement fat with similar qualities to cocoa butter. White chocolate in particular does not contain any cocoa mass, only cocoa butter, milk and sugar. Some manufacturers don't even use cocoa butter, preferring to use palm oil, along with lots of other unnecessary ingredients designed to keep the shelf life as long as possible and the cost-to-make as cheap as possible. This is why some people say that white chocolate isn't actually chocolate at all. It depends on the product but if there is no cocoa butter or cocoa mass then it is not chocolate.
Why Have we Only Recently Heard About Palm Oil and the Issues Around It?
William Proctor, a candle maker and James Gamble, a soap maker, were responsible for bringing palm oil to fame in the manufacturing/production world in the early 1900s. The two men joined forces after marrying sisters. Before palm oil, they made their commodities using lard (pork fat) and dripping (beef fat). They were looking for a cheaper alternative and when a German chemist found a way to turn liquid vegetable oil into solid fat through hydrogenating it, they patented the discovery and began to grow their empire. They launched Crisco in 1912, America, as an alternative to animal fat in cooking and with a clever marketing campaign, convinced the public that it was a new, healthier and clean way to cook. Public perception began to change and animal fats became the unhealthy enemy, with hydrogenated vegetable fats taking the lead. From there, they branched out into other products and are now responsible for many of our favourite house hold brands, including Lenor, Fairy, Head & Shoulders, Herbal Essences, Aussie Hair Care and more. See the full list of brands here.
A similar story took place when margarine producer, Margarine Unie, and British soap maker, Lever Brothers combined in 1929, to make Unilever. Accounting for brands such as Ben & Jerry's, Dove, Lynx, Cif, Magnum, Domestos, Vaseline, Simple (see full list here, Unilever along with Proctor and Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Mondelèz (owners of Oreo and Cadbury) and Mars are among the largest consumers of palm oil.
It wasn't until the 1990s that the health risks associated with trans-fats from hydrogenated vegetable oils were understood and links were made with increased cholesterol and heart disease. And it has only really been in the last few years that Greenpeace shone a light on the environmental impact deforestation for palm oil and soy plantations was having on the environment. Considering it has only been used commercially for the last 100 years, the amount of damage the farming of it has done to the planet in that time is catastrophic.
What Can we Do?
We can find alternatives. We can cook our meals from scratch, using only the ingredients we want to include, rather than buying pre-made sauces, bread, microwave meals, oven ready meals, biscuits, etc.
We can shop responsibly, always checking the labels and making a choice each time we buy something, to be the change we want to see. It will be difficult to begin with when we realise that many of our favourite foods are now out of bounds. But who knows what journey you might find yourself on. My journey led me to starting a chocolate business. I wish you the best of luck with yours.