What is palm oil, where does it come from and why is it bad?

What is palm oil, where does it come from and why is it bad?

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil from the mesocarp of the fruit of the oil palms. The edible oil is used in beauty products, food manufacturing and in some cases biofuel. However, the production of palm oil is linked to deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, damaging and destroying habitats of animals, like the endangered Orangutan, Sumatran rhino and pygmy elephant. It accounted for a third of global oils produced from crops in 2014. 

Where does palm oil come from and what does it look like?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of oil palm trees - or Elaeis guineensis. Crude palm oil hals from the fruit of the plant, whereas palm kernel oil comes from crushing the kernel, or stone, in the middle of the fruit. Oil palms are mostly found in Africa, where its been used in cooking for thousands of years. The tall trees grow hundreds of small orangey red fruits and they are home to tropical rainforests, although they are now being planted on farms in other continents for production.

Palm oil trees were transported to Asia and are a staple crop for areas like Malaysia and Indonesia, which is believed to supply more than 85% of the world’s quota each year. Indonesia is currently the largest producer of palm oil around the globe, providing more than 50 million tonnes annually. Before they took the crown, Nigeria was named as the country producing the most, back in 1924.

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How is palm oil made and harvested?

Producers squash the orangey red fruits of the tree to produce crude palm oil, with the stones or kernel inside the fleshy fruit cut and mashed up for palm kernel oil which is high in protein. Depending on the product, it’s transported refined or unrefined to manufacturers for food and beauty items.

What is palm oil used for and what products is it in?

There are thousands of products and uses for palm oil, from biofuel for power and heating, to food, beauty and chemical production. In foods, palm oil cane be found in items like cake, biscuits, chocolate, frying fats and margarine. For cosmetic products, soap, cleaning items, and shampoo are some of the items that list it as a component. It’s reported almost half of all products in the average UK supermarket contain palm oil.

Why is palm oil not vegan?

Palm oil is technically suitable for vegans in beauty products or food as it is derived from plants and doesn’t use animal products. However, because of the drastic impact production has on endangered species, habitats and the environment, some individuals choose whether to avoid it or not. You can still be vegan, eat vegan food and beauty care that include it, and it ultimately is a personal choice. Although there are a long list of alternatives in place for the superior oil, such as sesame or peanut oil in food products or cooking - which make impact the taste and colour, or shea butter and rapeseed oil in beauty skincare products.

MORE: Handmade vegan soap bars and lip scrubs

Why is palm oil bad for the environment?

Our range of vegan soap bars have absolutely no palm oil - kind to you and the planet.

It’s a major reason for deforestation on some of the world’s tropical rainforests, destroying habitats and affecting already endangered species. The loss of forest paired with rich soils which product greenhouse gases are key components of climate change. Some areas are plagued with worker exploitation, illegal farming and child labour.

The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) formed in 2004 to raise awareness around the impacts of palm oil on the environment. It created standards for farmers and producers who source palm oil, and encourages companies to remove deforestation and human rights violations, be transparent in what products use palm oil, know where and who they are buying it from and use RSPO certified palm oil only.

Other corporations for environment and animal protection are involved too, like the World Wildlife Fund, WWF, and working with governments and companies.

What is sustainable palm oil and what does it mean?

To help combat deforestation and illegal palm oil farming, RSPO certification accredits producers, farmers and consumers of sustainable palm oil. It evaluates the chain from palm oil to manufacturers ensuring it’s produced ethically while reducing the affect of habitats and deforestation. Some places are consulting on whether to ban large companies of using products which stem from illegally deforested land, however, one of the biggest obstacles is whether some small parts of the process or chain link is affected or compromised.

Why is palm oil used?

Palm oil is a versatile oil, it has endless uses and functions which is why it’s used in so many areas. At room temperature, it’s presented as semi-solid, so it keeps spreads like margarine easily movable. It doesn’t oxidise so for some items it aids a longer shelf-life, and as it is still stable at high temperatures, it allows fried products their crunchy texture. It doesn’t give off a smell, so it’s often used in place of other similar items, like peanut or sesame oil as it won’t affect the flavour or scent. In some countries, its used in kitchens as a cooking oil, whereas other places they’d use sunflower or olive oil.

The trees produce a high amount of oil over small areas of land, which is why so much palm oil can be produced across the world.

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What brands use palm oil?

Unfortunately, there isn’t an exact comprehensive list of what companies use palm oil, but there are key things you can look out for. 

Some brands include Muller, Aldi, Ocado, Spar, Eat Natural, Fruitshoot, Caffe Nero, Coffee Republic, Domino’s Pizza, Yo! Sushi, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, Itsu, Greggs, Pret A Manger, TGI Friday’s, Giraffe, Pizza Express, Chiquito, Frankie and Benny’s, Wagamama, Wetherspoons and hundreds more. However, just because companies use palm oil doesn’t mean they should be boycotted - it’s worth reaching out or checking on their websites about their use of palm oil and what RSPO regulations they follow.

Another way to find out if palm oil is in your food items or cosmetic brands, you can check out the ingredient list on the label. In most cases, palm oil isn’t listed as this name, but may be noted as other ingredients.

  • PKO Palm Kernel Oil
  • FP(K)O Fractionated Palm Oil
  • OPKO Organic Palm Kernel Oil
  • Palmate
  • Palmitate
  • Sodium Laureth Sulphate (but can also derive from coconut oils)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also stem from ricinus oil)
  • Sodium dodecyl sulphate (may be known as NaDS or SDS)
  • Glyceryl Stearate
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Stearic Acid
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate (may also be derived from coconut)
  • Sodium Isotearoyl Lactylaye
  • Cetyl Palmitate
  • Octyl Palmitate
  • Vitamin E Palmitate (may be derived from olive, coconut, palm or canola oil)
  • Steareth - 2 and - 20
  • PKO fractionations (Palm Kernel Stearin, Palm Kernel Olein)

Why do ships dump palm oil and why does it wash up on beaches?

As palm oil is transported across the globe, it can become contaminated with other waste products, and due to it being edible and used in food products, it’s legally released at sea by ships. However, not all palm oil dumping is legal, and some vessels do so illegally or without permission. Ships are permitted to clean their tanks after delivering palm oil, and can dump a limited amount of residue at sea. Palm oil is then washed up on coastal areas and beaches as a result. Another issue is that it can be attractive to animals and they become ill after consuming it.

How to avoid palm oil

One of the best ways is to learn how it is listed as an ingredient on product packaging and become accustomed to recognising it. Some brands choose to use palm oil substitutes, like shea butter, and eco-friendly.

Find and use palm oil-free products like handmade soap bars, shower gels and skincare from brands that are proud to not use it in their cosmetic items. Shop our range of palm oil-free soap - we're proud to have worked tirelessly improving our products so they're just as kind to the skin as they are to the environment.

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vegan soaps, lip scrubs and candles you'll love

our handmade soap bars are vegan, homemade in the UK and cruelty-free. there's no palm oil, parabens or SLS in our products and they're designed with you and the earth in mind. soaps have added shea butter for nourishment, whereas lip scrubs are infused with vitamin E and sweet almond oil to help nourish the skin. when it comes to our soy wax candles, they're made up of vegetable wax, eco-friendly cotton wicks and recyclable glass jars which can be re-used or re-purposed to prevent waste.

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