Recently on Socially Conscious Brands, we discussed conflict palm oil products in the beauty industry and their impact on the environment. As a short refresher, palm oil is made from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The oil palm is indigenous to Africa, but the largest plantations are in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Conflict palm oil is produced under environmentally damaging, unsustainable conditions and often involves human rights violations. The expansion of palm oil plantations into rainforests threatens the lives of indigenous peoples and the biodiversity of rainforest ecosystems. Unsustainable palm oil production also has an impact on climate change because deforestation releases high amounts of carbon into the air and rainfall patterns can be altered in other parts of the world.
Palm oil and its derivatives have so many diverse applications that it is used in thousands of different products, from food, to fuel, toothpaste. It’s the cheapest vegetable oil to produce, due to its high yield per plant. Its cost effectiveness is one of the reasons why it’s used across so many industries. Due to its versatility and low cost, it’s virtually impossible to remove from all products on the market. That’s why sustainable palm oil practices are so important.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a cooperative endeavor between companies and NGOs to advocate for sustainable palm oil production. RSPO requires specific criteria to be met before they will give a product the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) seal. GreenPalm is a program that allows companies to buy sustainable palm oil at a premium.
We all know that beauty products, such as lipstick contain palm oil. Although some cosmetic companies switched to sustainable practices or eliminated it all together, palm oil is still used in 50% of all packaged goods, including food items, cleaning solutions, lotions, and detergents.
The FDA requires that palm oil and its derivatives be labeled in all food products they are in, including when they are blended into other ingredients. Sometimes palm oil will not be explicitly listed, but may be listed as any of the ones shown below.
Alternative names of palm oil and its derivatives
Palm KErnal Elaeis Guineensis
Epoxidized Palm Oil (UV cured coatings)
Hydrated Palm Glycerides
Saponified Elaeis Guineensis
This is just a partial list of ingredient names for palm oil provided by the Philadelphia Zoo. A more exhaustive list, including ingredients that are potentially, but not definitively palm oil, can be found here. Palm Oil Investigations and the Rainforest Action Network also provide informative lists regarding palm oil labeling in the United States and other countries. Identifying palm oil in food is much easier than in other products where ingredient lists are not required.
Pizza & Pasta
- Pizza Dough: Palm oil is used in pizza dough, frozen and fresh, as a binding agent and to obtain an optimal texture.
Alternative: Udis, a subsidiary of Boulder Brands offers pizza dough that it RSPO certified.
- Instant Noodles: All environmentally conscious college students will feel this one the most, I know. Almost half of the weight of this product is palm oil. Unfortunately, the biggest distributors, like Nissin, have no commitment to sustainable palm oil. So, it may be better to ditch Ramen (it isn’t that great for you, anyways).
Ice Cream & Margarine
- Ice Cream: It isn’t the cream that makes ice cream creamy—you guessed it: palm oil. It’s difficult to find ice cream products without palm oil because everyone expects creamy ice cream.
Alternative: O Organic brand ice cream is a palm oil free store brand. It’s also super easy to make at home and you can customize it any way you want.
- Margarine: You will be hard pressed to find palm-oil free brands in the supermarket. Earth Balance sources their palm oil under the criteria set by the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) and is RSPO certified. Nutiva claims that their products are “Orangutan-safe.” They source their palm oil from Ecuador where there aren’t orangutans. But, Nutiva doesn’t give much information about sustainable practices involved in production besides claiming their palm oil “…does not contribute to deforestation or habitat destruction.”
Alternative: If you aren’t interested in Earth Balance or Nutiva’s lack of transparency makes you weary, that’s okay. You can make your own (vegan-friendly) butter! If that is too much of an investment, you can always use olive oil and salt. You can also make use of any of these palm-oil free margarine and butter substitutes.
- Chocolate: Palm oil is the ingredient that help makes chocolate smooth and maintain its shape at room temperature. Lindt solid chocolate bars only use 100% cocoa butter, but chocolates with fillings, like Lindor Truffles, do have palm oil. Lindt is a member of the RSPO, who sources their palm oil with a segregated sourcing model. This encourages traceability in the supply chain.
Hershey’s is also a member of the RSPO, but not all of their products use sustainable palm oil. In their own RSPO report, they state that only 97% of products sold in the US are sustainable (and only 3% of those in China are sustainable).
Nestle, a RSPO member was embroiled in a palm oil scandal in 2010, by buying palm oil from Sinar-Mas, a corporation accused of illegal practices related to palm oil production. Nestlé RSPO report from 2015 does not provide any data regarding how much of their palm oil is sustainable. Additionally, they are phasing out their GreenPalm certified sources for their own.
Nutella, made by Ferrero, contains palm oil. They use RSPO palm oil and have almost obtained 100% traceability in their supply chains. Green Peace, who broke the Nestlé-Sinar-Mas palm oil scandal, has had positive things to say about Ferrero’s practices. Ferrero also has an apparent commitment to transparency, as they provide regular news and updates regarding palm oil in relations to their industry
Alternative: Lindt solid chocolate and Ferrero products may be the best regarding palm oil. Still seeking palm oil free alternative chocolates or Nutella? It’s relatively easy to make on your own with this minimalist Nutella recipe or this quick chocolate cups recipe.
- Palm oil lends most packaged breads their texture and self-staying power. If you don’t mind going gluten-free, Boulder Brands, parent company of Smart Balance, Udis, Glutino, and Earth Balance, is also a member of the POIG.
Alternative: Making bread at home can be a palm oil free and cheaper alternative to buying bread.
- Laundry Detergent: Laundry detergent is tricky, because unlike food items, the FDA does not require ingredients to be listed on the packaging. Most laundry detergents use either palm oil, coconut oil, or a blend of the two.
Alternative: Swapping out your regular laundry detergent for palm oil free soap flakes from the Pure Soap Flake Company is one way to remove palm oil from your list of chores and cut down on plastics too. You can also make your own laundry detergent from recipes such as this one. Be careful when using castile soap—it can be blended with palm oil unless it is 100% made from olive oil.
- Household Cleaners: Cleaners often contain sulfates, glycerin, and other compounds that are often made from palm oil. It can be hard to identify what is in some cleaners, but making your own cleaners is a great option.
Alternatives: Vinegar is a great natural cleaner and can be mixed with other items for dynamic uses.
- Shampoo and Conditioner: Palm oil is excellent for conditioning, but there are plenty of alternatives around! This is especially true if you are willing to go a little off the beaten path.
Alternatives: LUSH has been committed to being a palm oil free brand, and they offer all types of shampoos and conditioners for your needs. LUSH can be pricey, but Urban Oreganics, Scratch Goods, and Fanciful Fox are just some shampoo bars without palm oil. A more exhaustive list is provided by Selva Beat.
- Soap: Palm oil is often the main vegetable oil or blended with other oils in soup products. Brands like Burt’s Bees, which is owned by Clorox, is not at the top of the list for sustainable practices, but Unilever soaps are made with sustainable palm oil as well as their other products.
Alternatives: As mentioned before, LUSH is palm oil free, and so are many small-scale brands that can be ordered online, such as Unearth Malee. If you make your own soap or are interested in starting, here is a fantastic resource on how to make any soap recipe palm oil free.
- Toothpaste: Even oral hygiene products aren’t free of palm oil. Colgate has lagged behind in the past, but their practices have improved over the years.
Alternatives: Earthpaste is a cruelty-free, palm oil free toothpaste that can be purchased in some stores and online.
Verifying Palm Oil in Other Products
A handy tool that I have found that makes checking products for palm oil in the grocery store a breeze, is the Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping app.
Here is also a more exhaustive and easy to read list of companies and their products with sustainable palm oil. While Selva Beat also offers an A-Z list of palm oil free brands for just about anything you can imagine.