Palm oil: It’s in our bread and biscuits and it’s killing orang-utans

One Change: It’s found in 50% of supermarket items, from lipstick to ice cream

We need to talk about palm oil, the ubiquitous oil found in roughly 50 per cent of supermarket items - everything from lipstick and shampoo to sliced bread, margarine, cookies, chocolate, pizza dough, instant noodles and ice cream.

National Geographic claims that its production is a leading cause of the loss of half of the world's orang-utans, and the destruction of 80 per cent of their habitat. Tigers, elephants, and rhinos are affected too, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as tropical rainforest are cleared to plant new palm plantations.

The oil is now the most widely consumed vegetable oil on earth, and it is virtually impossible to avoid unless you stop buying any processed foods or commercial detergents or cosmetics.

It's an incredibly destructive crop to both wildlife and indigenous communities

Most of the time you won’t even know your consuming it, as it can be listed as vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, palmate, palmolein, glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, elaeis guineensis, palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium kernelate, sodium palm kernelate, hyrated palm glycerides, etyl palmitate, octyl palmitate and palmityl alcohol. Even the innocuous-seeming E471 may refer to palm oil.


It's an incredibly destructive crop to both wildlife and indigenous communities, and yet the WWF do not encourage boycotting it; rather they recommend seeking out products marked with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo. The reason for this is that oil palms produce four to 10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land, and so switching to other vegetable oils may have greater negative impact on the planet.

The RSPO logo aims to ensure that no primary forests or areas that contain significant concentrations of endangered species or fragile ecosystems have been cleared for the production of the oil, and that workers are treated well and the community is consulted before the development of new plantations.

Yet RSPO is run in association with Unilever and Nestlé, and their vetting system is by no means fool-proof. They allow the destruction of secondary rainforest, and Greenpeace has reported on some RSPO growers destroying primary forest and abusing human rights. A further complication is that companies will often mix sustainable palm oil with cheaper unclassified oil, or may not be able to trace where every single oil came from in every ingredient they use.

The best option is to find the very few manufactures who've cut out palm oil entirely

The best option is to ask your food producers. Pat the Baker, Johnston Mooney & O'Brien, Brennan's and O'Hara's bakery all use RSPO palm oil. The real question here is why any bread needs to have oil in it at all; but that aside, some other RSPO-certified brands include Dairygold, Taytos, Jacobs, Roma and all Aldi own-brand products.

If the credibility of the RSPO certification system doesn’t convince you, then the best option is to find the very few manufactures who’ve cut out palm oil entirely, such as Iceland’s own-brand products… and of course all the food you cook and bake at home.

One Change is a weekly column exploring the changes, big and small, that we can all make in our daily lives for the good of the planet