Palm oil has quickly become one of the most notorious ingredients on the nutrition panel as more details emerge about how most companies produce it. The short version: Many palm oil producers burn down lush rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia to clear the way for their plantations. In the process, they displace indigenous communities and endangered species, contribute to soil erosion, worsen air pollution, and speed up global warming. Given all that, it’s no surprise that conscious consumers have started inspecting labels and boycotting products that use it.
But ... Avoidance Isn't the Answer
A straightforward boycott isn’t the best solution to the problem, for a few key reasons. First, it’s very difficult to completely boycott palm oil because it goes by other names—like glycerin, glyceryl stearate, or stearic acid—in ingredient lists, which makes it hard to identify. In fact, it's estimated that roughly half of all packaged supermarket products contain palm oil.
Part of its popularity has to do with how efficient the crop is. It’s the world’s highest-yielding vegetable oil per acre because its source, the African oil palm, starts producing fruit year-round at a relatively young age (3 to 4 years old). African oil palms continue to produce fruit continuously for up to 40 years. Because of that high yield, producers are disinclined to replace palm oil with other vegetable oil crops, since it would require more land to produce the same amount of oil.
Another appeal of palm oil is that it’s an extremely versatile oil with clear advantages over other varieties. Palm oil is made by pressing the fruit’s pulp, and in its natural, unrefined state, it contains antioxidants, beta-carotene, and lauric acid. Those factors, combined with its moderate smoke point and nutty taste, make it a great option for cooking.
Additionally, palm oil mixes well with other oils and doesn’t oxidize or go rancid, so it helps extend the shelf life of packaged goods. It’s also a great alternative to petroleum-based ingredients in cosmetics and other personal care products. And since it’s non-hydrogenated, palm oil is a common ingredient in nut butters (to help prevent separation), vegan buttery spreads, and dairy-free baked goods.
Sustainable Palm Oil
Given the many uses—and abundance—of palm oil, you can be confident that it’s not going away. Fortunately, there’s a way to do it right. The Palm Done Right movement was created to prove that palm oil can be grown for good. In 2016, Natural Habitats—one of the world’s top producers of organic palm oil—launched the movement to educate manufacturers, businesses, retailers, and consumers on how palm oil can actually serve communities and help the environment.
Producers who are aligned with the Palm Done Right movement vow to protect primal forests. They focus on nurturing degraded land by growing palms using organic practices, plant complementary crops to support soil health, and leave a portion of the land untouched to encourage biodiversity. Palm Done Right producers are also dedicated to sustainability, collecting palm leaves and discarded fruit bunches to serve as compost. Empty palm bunches are also collected and burned for fuel—although mules and oxen are primarily used for powering farm equipment as a way to limit fossil fuels.
Farmers benefit from the Palm Done Right movement because they receive fair prices and wages, safe working conditions, education, and other tools that help empower them to become active stewards of the land. The benefits of Palm Done Right extend beyond the farm, too. The organization’s partners work with farmers and community members to develop infrastructure, build medical clinics, and support local schools.
The Brands Changing Palm Oil's Bad Rap
In addition to working with brands to transition to organic and sustainable palm oil for their products, the Palm Done Right movement is also dedicated to changing consumers’ minds about palm oil. It encourages shoppers to choose products made with responsibly produced palm oil in the hopes of eventually eliminating its unsustainable counterpart.
At Thrive Market, we’re committed to upholding the highest sustainability standards in the industry, and our members can be sure that the palm oil in any product sold on our site comes from a sustainable, ethical, and responsible source. This September—Palm Done Right month—we encourage our members to support the brands that have joined the movement, including Dr. Bronner’s, Nutiva, Quinn Snacks, and Jovial. Looking for other ways to support the movement? Check product labels for Palm Done Right, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), or Rainforest Alliance (RFA) certifications, and shop at retailers that support the Palm Done Right movement.
Photo credit: Palm Done Right