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Palm Oil, Orangutans & Us

Palm Oil, Orangutans & Us

How the ice cream we eat might be linked to this baby orangutan and his bamboo straw in a rescue camp

Palm oil and its derivatives are possibly one of the most useful ingredients on the planet and that is where all the trouble starts. Palm oil is in nearly half of all packaged products found in supermarkets and around 70 percent of cosmetics. 

By volume, palm oil products aren't a big percentage of what we consume (although palm oil and soy bean are the most consumed oils on earth), it's just that it is in nearly everything you find on a supermarket shelf, chemists and body care shops. Cosmetics, shampoo, ice cream, detergent, soap, bread, dough, chocolate. 

The reason we love palm oil is that it is so damned good. It's uses are wide ranging, it's effective and it's a safe and less complex alternative. It also combines with many other chemicals to 'support the job it has to do in the enivronment it finds itself in'. We have listed 640 names for palm oil and its derivatives, but many believe there are up to 1,000.  It's major uses are as a surfactant and emulsifier.

Palm oil as a surfactant

Palm oil derived surfactants are an excellent alternative to more traditional petroleum based surfactants and infinitely safer in food for instance. (Surfactants lower the surface tension between compounds, allowing things that wouldn't normally mix together to do so. Detergent is a good example of a common use surfactant for washing. It essentially attaches the oil and grease in clothes and dishes to water.) 

Palm oil as an emulsifier 

Palm oil's use as an emulsifier is wide ranging - sometimes for convenience or price and often for shelf life (or all three). Egg yolk for instance, is the emulsifier in most home made ice cream, but palm oil is now widely used commercially because it doesn't go off like egg yolks. Essentially its role is to help keep ice cream smooth by distributing fat molecules evenly. 

Palm Oil itself is fine, the problem is how it is produced

There is nothing technically wrong with palm oil as a vegetable oil from a sustainablity standpoint. It is in fact an extremely productive crop, yielding more per plant than any other vegetable oil, with a much lower cost of production. 


Uncontrolled clearing creates homelessness

To make way for palm oil production, many rainforests are being cut down illegally in uncontrolled clearing, leaving many endangered animals such as orangutans, elephants and tigers along with humans, homeless, as the natural habitat disappears. In the last 25 years, nearly 32 million hectares of forests have disappeared from the face of Indonesia alone.

Uncontrolled clearing means indiscriminate clearing, burning, bulldozing and killing of anything in the way of whoever is driving the next palm oil plantation. The destruction of these forests and everything in them is both an incredible toll on life & habitats as well as a driving a massive amounts of emissions.

Rain forests are huge carbon sinks so when they are destroyed, they release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. (After fossil fuel burning, deforestation is the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide.)  And all that is before you even start to count the consequences of the loss of the rain forest's future oxygen production and CO2 sinkage. 

How we can all make better palm oil choices?

There are a number of scanners in production in different parts of the world, so access your phone platform for barcode scanner based apps. You can also join facebook groups like the POI Investigations group, which is both up to date and with global contributors,  you can either do a serach or get a fast answer to any question all day and night. 


POI (Palm Oil Investigations)

As noted in the previous paragragh, POI (Palm Oil Investigations) is a voluntary not for profit organisation set up in 2013 and has been a big influencer in expose of palm oil usage and orangutan awareness. They have an excellent facebook group you can join if you want to learn quickly and ask questions. 

The Orangutan Project

Both the Bornean & Sumatran orangutans are now critically endangered and in the face of growing demand for Palm Oil, their prospects look pretty bleak. The Orangutan Project raises money to help rehome and rehabilitate orangutans. You can support programs like the Orangutan Project by sponsoring orangutans or making donations. 

The Orangutan Alliance / Palm Oil Free Accreditation

The Orangutan Alliance is an independent industry based, non-profit organisation and registered charity promoting the reduction of non sustainable palm oil  in consumer products. Manufacturers are able to certify their products with The Orangutan Alliance so consumers can buy with surety. They also have a podcast and work with other groups to increase awareness.  

Palm Oil Kernals

What else can you do about palm oil?

Read the label on every processed food or body product you buy and know what you are buying. With increasing awareness, there are many more products made without palm oil or at least made with certified palm oil. And some of these products are even in supermarkets and department stores - if that is your preferred shopping venue.

It is easier to find good products online as you simply just need to shop on sites that are transparent about ingredients. Many small batch producers like those on product check have no need for palm oil and you can be pretty sure they don't use it, but always check the Ekko Score or the products environmental claims.

Other names for palm oil

It is so important to check the label of everything you buy so shop via places like so you can be sure you aren't contributing to the destruction of tropical rain forests clearing for palm oil plantations. 

Palm oil and it's by products are often represented on a label as any of these ingredients: 

Vegetable Oil
Glyceryl  Oxostearamide 
Palm Kernel   Palmitic Acid  Palmitoyl 
Palmate   Sodium Laureth Sulfate  Na Palm Kernelate 
Vegetable Fat  Stearate  Ethyl Palmitate 
Palm Kernel Oil  Palm Stearine  Palmitate  
Palmitate  Sodium Lauryl Sulfate   Sodium Kernelate 
Palmolein  Stearic Acid  Octyl 
Palm Fruit Oil  Palmityl Alcohol  Elaeis Guineensis 
Hydrated Palm Glycerides  Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate  Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3 

Note that these are not all of the alternate names for palm oil, just the more common ones. There are at least 640 other names for Palm Oil. Also, one great rule of thumb: Palm oil is a saturated fat so if a product lists vegetable oil as an ingredient and over 40% of its fat content is saturated fat, you can almost guarantee the product contains palm oil.

The Food numbers to look out for include:

472a/E472a  471/E471  243  475/E475   435/E435 
470/E470a; E470b  472c/E472c  304  477/E477  436/E436 
482/E482  472e/E472e  442  481/E481  433/E433 
1518  473/E473  491  492  570 

And emulsifiers 422, 430-36, 470-8, 481-483, 493-5 

Pic: Top pic: Unsplash | Dimitry Legnz and then in order, Unsplash - Brenda Godinez |  Price Pottenger | Global Risk Insights | Mokosh
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Sarah Jordan
Owner / Manager

One way to be confident that the product you are purchasing uses sustainable Palm Oil is to look for the Good Environmental Choice Australia Eco Label. This is the GECA tick, and any product carrying this label has been independently audited against their relevant environmental standard. Cleaning and personal care product standards, for example, are required to demonstrate the source and status of any Palm Oil used. Thursday, 9 June 2022

Eco Tips Editor

(from The Guardian): Worldwide production of palm oil has been climbing steadily for five decades. Between 1995 and 2015, annual production quadrupled, from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes. By 2050, it is expected to quadruple again, reaching 240m tonnes. The footprint of palm oil production is astounding: plantations to produce it account for 10% of permanent global cropland. Today, 3 billion people in 150 countries use products containing palm oil. Globally, we each consume an average of 8kg of palm oil a year. Wednesday, 19 August 2020

michelle d

Why Boycotting Palm Oil Is Not The Way To Save Orangutans Friday, 1 March 2019

michelle d

Organisations working on this issue, such as Greenpeace, RAN, Orangutan Land Trust, Sumatran Orangutan Society and others do NOT endorse a blanket boycott of palm oil but rather encourage brands, retailers and consumers to demand deforestation-free, peat-free and exploitation-free Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Friday, 1 March 2019