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Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the reddish pulp of palm fruit from a plant native to west and Southwest Africa, while also existing in Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Central Africa.

Most people associate “palms” with palm trees, even though within their botanical family also exists shrubs and vines. It’s estimated that humans have used these fascinating plants for our own devices for as long as 5,000 years or more, and in more recent times (within the last hundred years) the industry for palm oil has sprung up primarily from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Needless to say, there is a long and engaging history behind our use of palm oil for food purposes. It even has an interesting history as far as non-food purposes are concerned, such as its use in the creation of napalm during World War 2!

As fascinating as a historian might find palm oil… an ethicist, wildlife conservationist, or environmentalist is like to find the current usage of palm oil simply appalling. As you may have heard, there are some dire concerns which bring into question the moral validity of our vast use of palm oil for food production.

As palm oil is one of the world’s most popular vegetable oils, we have to admit that this isn’t just a small-scale problem to be dealt with. And though some companies might be proposing “sustainable palm oil” solutions as awareness for palm oil problems grows, it’s best not to be taken in by these hollow promises and instead learn the facts of why and how to avoid palm oil usage for yourself.

1. Know Why You’re Looking Out for It

Why you don’t want to consume or purchase palm oil can be summed up by the three big ethical categories: environmental, animal, and humanitarian reasons.

As WWF global reports on the environmental and social impacts of palm oil production: “Large
areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high Conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations.”

Establishing this monoculture has some serious negative impacts on our environment on both local and global scales, such as soil erosion, air Pollution, water Pollution, and aiding in our man-made negative impact on Climate change.

As for the social angle, palm oil plantations can pose disastrous consequences for the rights and livelihoods of local communities, their personhood often being ignored for expansion of the palm oil industry.

And lastly, animal wildlife suffers greatly as they are injured, killed, and displaced during deforestation. Orangutans have become some of the biggest victims of palm oil, and are killed with guns or machetes during implementation and harvesting.

It’s estimated that “over 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades”, with countless other animals alongside them. With the sort of sacrifices we make and lives we take from both human and animal kind in order to obtain this substance, if you didn’t know any better you’d think that our very lives depended on palm oil.

2. Know Where To Look

Where you’re likely to find palm oil is a matter much more difficult than asking why you shouldn’t. As stated before, palm oil is a vastly popular product for food production. Palm oil has also gained popularity in bath and beauty products like soaps and cleansers.

The most likely place you’ll find palm oil in your diet and lifestyle is in processed snacks like chocolate, cookies, ice cream, margarine, granola bars, candy, chips, crackers, pastries, and frozen pizza. When buying any of these products, it takes only a second to check the back of the product and scan the ingredient list to see if palm oil makes an appearance.

As for personal care and cosmetics items, palm oil can be in just about anything, so it may be easier to search up companies that as a rule do not make use of palm oil in their products than reading the back of every bath and beauty product you intend to purchase.

Of course, the same rule of thumb can be applied to food products as well, but usually only needs to be applied to certain groups of food products – again, snacks and other processed foods. An easy way to avoid accidental purchases of products containing palm oil is to make these sorts of snacks at home instead of buying pre-packaged versions.

Homemade cookies, pizza, trail mixes, and more may not only make it easier to avoid palm oil, but can also allow you to make healthier choices. Not all homemade meals are necessarily healthier than store-bought ones, but it isn’t hard to turn an otherwise health hazardous food into something better for your health. Choosing to make more meals from scratch at home while quickly scanning ingredients lists for anything you can’t make provides an effective method of cutting palm oil out of your life.

3. Know What To Replace it With

Some of the biggest palm oil offenders are, unfortunately, also some of the tastiest and most useful. Everyone’s favorite cream filled favorite cookie known as oreos, while not containing any animal products, certainly can’t be considered ethical or “vegan” considering the sort of harm they cause with the use of palm oil.

Luckily, it’s possible to make a healthier oreo at home or simply look for an oreo knock-off brand that doesn’t list palm oil as one of its ingredients. And while I scream, you scream, we all scream for Tofutti rice dreamsicles, a large number of Tofutti products make use of palm oil in their production, leaving us to turn to other sources of ethical ice cream or cheese like Vegusto or So Delicious and other palm oil free companies for our pleasures.

If you can’t find a good palm-oil free company to help you replace some tasty or essential products in your life, consider making them at home using whole ingredients in bulk.

Lastly: don’t sweat it if you buy a product only to later discover it has palm oil in it. Accidents happen, mistakes happen. We’re only human. The road to an ethical lifestyle has many potholes along the way, but they don’t have to stop you dead in your tracks. All we can do is try our hardest to avoid palm oil wherever it may lie and lead by example.

Image source: WWF