Palm Oil - Good or Bad?

Palm Oil

Before I started researching the subject of palm oil, my intention was to write a simple article about the hundreds of different names palm oil and palm oil derivatives can be listed under on product packaging. Many of us these days, have a very negative perception of palm oil and try to avoid it like the plague. This can be almost impossible when there's lots of different names for palm based ingredients. But my research took me down an unexpected path.. In the following article I talk about the oils derived from the palm plant, the sustainability of palm oil and I describe some of the hidden names for commercial palm oil products you will find on ingredient lists. 

Hope you enjoy! Would love to hear your views on this.

Palm Oil  

Botanical name: (Elaeis guineensis) 

Family: Arecaceae (same as coconut, babassu and açai all of which are palms)

Palm oil in and of itself surely can not be a bad thing right? It’s just an oil, pressed from plant material like any other. It’s the unethical commercial practices that gives the product a bad name. The Elaeis guineensis tree produces two types of palm oil, both are versatile oils that have quite different chemical compositions and physical characteristics..

Palm Oil, pressed from the pulp of the fruit, is orange-red in colour due to its beta-carotene (vitamin A) content, it consists of 50% saturated fat and has high antioxidant activity due to its significant amount of vitamin E. If the oil is boiled, the carotenoid content is destroyed and the oil becomes colourless, this refined version is mainly used in industry. It is used in cooking oil, margarine, and rich-tasting processed foods. The commercial alternative in the food industry is hydrogenated oil which we know to be unhealthier for us.

Palm Kernel Oil, pressed from the fruit kernels, has a higher saturated fat content of around 85%. This oil is high in medium chain fatty acids (MCT) at over 50%, Coconut oil has over 60%. MCT’s are broken down quickly by the body and burned easily as energy instead of being stored as fats. Like coconut oil, palm kernel oil is solid at room temperature and resembles the same constituents, properties and applications. Palm kernel oil is used more for making soaps, detergents and cosmetics than in food based products.

We have two good oils from the one plant and if you are a fan of coconut oil there is no reason why you shouldn’t be a fan of palm kernel oil. The unethical deforestation, especially where there is an abundance of wildlife like Orangutan's is what gives palm oil’s their bad name.

Sustainability of Palm Oil

Palm oil is the most efficient oil bearing crop in the World. The plant produces about 35% of global vegetable oils on less than 10% of the total land under oil crops. With 18.7 million hectares of industrial-scale oil palm plantations in 2017, it is ranked 3rd in terms of planted area for an oil crop, behind soy and rapeseed (4th if maize is considered an oil crop).  

Agriculture is the leading cause of global deforestation, with 24% of the land used for livestock and 29% for crops. Soy farming is responsible for more than double the amount of deforestation than palm oil production and livestock and beef production has led to more than five times the amount of deforestation. Palm produces at least six times more oil per hectare than its closest rivals: rapeseed and soy. Switching to other types of oil will require even more land and deforestation than the cultivation of palm oil. 

Palm oil crops take up less than 0.5% of global deforestation, but surpasses 50% in specific regions such as Malaysian Borneo. And here is where the problems lie. Global production of palm oil is dominated by Indonesia and Malaysia, which together account for 85% of the World's supply. This huge concentration of palm oil production means that it is responsible for deforestation in a relatively small geographical area. An area with a stunning array of wildlife including the Orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra. 

When properly developed and managed, palm oil plantations can play an important role in improving livelihoods and eradicating poverty in the tropics' rural areas. As well as producing two excellent oils with high yields and less deforestation than other oils produce. South America, most notably Columbia and Ecuador are now farming more and more palm oil so hopefully this will help keep the pressure of the South East Asian countries. There are reportedly some great sustainability programmes going on in this area too.

Boycotting palm oil with all it’s bad publicity is a heartfelt conscious consumer action to carry out, however, as usual it takes a bit of digging to uncover the real scenario. Boycotting this industry punishes the unscrupulous industrialists as well as the independent farmers and local communities. The unethical commercial practices are the problem and they will take place no matter what ingredient is being farmed.  Standards across the industry must be heightened in the areas of environment, wildlife, community and economy. 

Sustainable palm oil is available and there are a number of organisations working on this..

RSPO - Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (founded in 2004 by Unilever in cooperation with World Wildlife Fund) is the largest organisation attempting to solve the problems of palm oil production. Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from local community members prior to oil palm development is a requirement for palm oil certification under the RSPO scheme. Only about 19% of globally traded palm oil is RSPO-certified, however, Over 74% is produced by companies that have committed to No Deforestation. RSPO have come under much criticism for being lenient in the policing of their regulations and their standards are perceived as lax. There have also been similar initiatives led by national governments such as the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) standard, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standard (MSPO), and Brazil's Sustainable Palm Oil Production Program (SPOPP)

Undoubtedly the RSPO and other such initiatives are on the right track but much improvement is required. The forms of ethical and environmental injustices we see in the production of palm oil will no doubt be continued across to whatever other is oil is chosen to replace it. And much more deforestation will be required for this.

Interesting Links on this..

Palm Done Right 

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

Sumatran Orangutan Society

Palm Oil Investigations

Palm Oil in Disguise

If you would still like to buy palm oil free products the main certification board is the Orangutan Alliance. So look out for their certification mark on products. It is estimated that palm oil is in roughly 50% of all products sold in supermarkets. 

Vegetable Oil - Palm oil can be described as just plain vegetable oil. it’s the most widely used and consumed vegetable oil in the World.

Fats are extensively used within industry and commerce for lots of reasons. Coconut and palm oils have become increasingly popular in recent years especially since hydrogenated oils have grown out of fashion within food products. Because palm kernel and coconut oils are highly saturated the hydrogenation process is not required. 

Both these fats commonly go through processes of steam hydrolysis, which breaks apart the fatty acid structure. And esterification, re-combining fatty acids to the glycerol component. The esterification of fatty acids with glycerol produces the common cosmetic ingredient Capric/caprylic Triglyceride which is either coconut or palm oil derived.

Whenever you see a single fatty acid in an ingredient list or it’s saponified equivalent (some examples listed below) these could well be derived from palm oils. Glycerine or glycerol is also often derived from palm oil. 

Fatty Acids

- Palmitic acid

- Hexadecanoic acid

- Myristate acid

- Caprylic acid

- Capric acid

- Lauric acid

- Stearic acid 

- Oleic acid 

Saponified Fatty Acids

- Sodium palmate

- Sodium myristate

- Sodium decanoate

- Sodium caprylate

- Sodium octanoate

- Sodium laurate 

- Sodium Stearate

- Sodium oleate

All the SLS’s are often derived from palm oil, anything with ‘palm’ in the name is highly likely a derivative and also some of the ‘coco’ ingredients which generally come from coconut oil can also be palm derived. Watch out for any ingredient with a mixture of the words mentioned above


Click here for a comprehensive list of potential palm oil products and ingredients.


I hope this information has helped you to be a little more aware of the controversy around palm oil and helped you to understand some ingredient listings a little more.  Please feel free to leave any comments and open the discussion further.


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