Palm Oil and Sustainability - Why We Choose Global Health

When it comes to food ingredients with a bad reputation, palm oil tends to top the list. Nicole chose not to incorporate palm oil in the original 88 Acres recipe because of her time spent in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia in 2009 watching barges full of old growth rainforest logs floating down the river and the deforested land converted to palm plantations. She witnessed first-hand the direct negative impact of palm oil production on local communities and in the process learned more about the large-scale environmental threat associated with palm farming.

Borneo palm oil barge deforestation malaysia

Our local friend, dietitian and sustainable food policy expert, Megan Faletra MS, MPH, RDN, explains that sustainability in food production is not only about climate change, but about ethical labor rights, health equity throughout the global supply chain, environmental protection and practices that reverse the effects of global warming by regenerating new resources. She describes sustainability as, “a philosophy and moral way of living that aims to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations.”

What is Palm Oil?

It is the oil harvested from the oil palm trees that grow primarily in the south Asian countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. Traditionally used as a cooking oil in African and Asian cuisine, palm oil is now widely found in industrially-produced products, from nut and seed butters to toothpaste, because it is more shelf-stable and offers a more desirable texture than other oils.

Palm oil is one of the most inexpensive vegetable oils on the market. According to Faletra, this is related to low labor costs, (in many cases forced child labor) and high yields per acre when compared to other nut or seed oils.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), approximately 85% of all palm oil is produced in the Bornean countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil plantations cover over 40 million acres of land that originally housed vibrant rainforests and abundant wildlife.

Palm Oil Nutrition 101

Breaking it down, palm oil actually contains a high amount of Vitamin A and Vitamin E. We distinguish between fats based on how ‘saturated’ they are because unsaturated and saturated fats behave differently in our bodies. Examples of saturated fats include beef and other animal fats, butter, lard and tropical oils like coconut and palm oil. Our understanding of the health effects of different types of fatty acids has evolved over time, and we are continuing to tease apart the effect of foods containing saturated fats. So far, it seems that the type of saturated fat in palm oil is primarily one that is not itself harmful, and fresh palm oil is widely used as a cooking oil in West and Central Africa and Asia.

It is important to distinguish between the raw oil used for home cooking and the refined oil used in some commercial products; some studies show the oxidized commercial oil may contribute to greater risk for heart disease and body-wide inflammation. Fresh palm oil does not seem to contribute these same risks and is likely not harmful in and of itself.

Palm oil is different than palm kernel oil. While palm oil is harvested from the fruit of the palm oil tree, palm kernel oil comes from the seed. Nutritionally, palm oil is less saturated than palm kernel oil, and palm kernel oil contains more of the harmful kinds of saturated fat than palm oil.

Is Palm Oil Sustainable?

Coming back to our definition of food system sustainability, we find that the palm oil industry unfortunately negatively contributes to all of these categories, “proliferating the exploitation of laborers, natural habitats, and contributing significantly to climate change,” Megan explains. Palm oil production is generally called “monoculture,” which means palm oil plantations grow only one kind of crop, lacking biodiversity - natural genetic variation that protects crops from mass disease wipeouts - and draining the soil of its essential nutrients which are otherwise replaced when plantations rotate the kinds of crops they grow.

Palm oil barge deforestation Borneo and peninsular Malaysia

Does Palm Oil Production Contribute to Climate Change?

The issue with palm oil, Faletra tells us, is deforestation. For decades, she says, the palm oil industry freely contributed to the mass clearing of rainforests and peatlands in Southeast Asia for the purpose of palm oil production. The released carbon from plants and soil in the form of carbon dioxide worsens the already-dire air quality in much of Southeast Asia and contributes greatly to the overall greenhouse gas accumulation warming and threatening our planet.

Destroyed rainforests in Southeast Asia also threaten the extinction of endangered wildlife such as the Sumatran Tiger, the Asian Rhinoceros, and the Sumatran Orangutan. These animals will likely not survive increased proliferation of palm plantations and removal of their natural habitats, despite the activity of wildlife sanctuaries aiming to prevent the collapse of these exotic animals.

There are Companies Trying to do it Right

“There are companies who are looking to completely change the way palm oil is produced and make a giant impact on the industry as a whole,” says Faletra. Some palm oil organizations such as Palm Done Right are using multi-cropping, organic and sustainable farming practices, and fair trade labor rights to change the way palm oil is produced and positively affect the local communities. These practices create biodiversity and help regenerate the land used for palm production. They also support the economic stability of farmers and laborers and avoid all “clear cutting”, burning and planting of palm plants in primal rainforests.

Instead, organizations such as Palm Done Right and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are choosing to plant palm with complementary crops in degraded lands using organic farming techniques that can help rebuild the health and diversity of the environment. Partly established by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the RSPO was formed in 2003 to establish strict guidelines for sustainable oil production in a collaborative setting that benefits producers and reduces the impact on the environment.

However, Faletra cautions us, “not all sustainably sourced palm oil is created equal,” and not every guideline included in the RSPO is a guarantee that best practices are being followed. She adds that understanding the values of companies using palm oil is just as important. “For better or worse we are in a time where health conscious and sustainable greenwashing occurs in order to attract consumers, so it really is up to consumers to do their homework before falling for every RSPO label.”

How to be a Responsible Consumer

The first step toward becoming more conscious as a consumer is to become an educated consumer. “I always recommend for consumers to first educate themselves on what is in the products they use. And I mean all products, not just food,” says Faletra. Realizing how many products contain palm oil can help to identify categories of products that deserve a more critical appraisal. Then, learn about where companies source their ingredients, especially palm oil, and if they are knowledgeable about the large-scale impact as a player in the food system.

“When looking for products that have used responsibly sourced palm oil, a first place to look would be whether or not the product has been certified fair trade and organic. Both of these labels represent a variety of standards that help protect the laborers, environment, and consumers of palm oil products.”

88 Acres Chooses Not to Use Palm Oil

As a company, we are dedicated to improving the sustainability of both our community and the globe, and carefully source our ingredients from producers we stand behind. From what we have learned about palm oil production and Nicole’s personal experience witnessing the immediate impacts of palm oil production on the Southeast Asian social and natural environment, you will not find palm oil on the list of ingredients in any 88 Acres product.


Megan Faletra, MS, MPH, RDN for contributing her expertise to this article for 88 Acres. Megan is a Global Health Dietitian and Sustainability Consultant in Boston, Massachusetts, and Founder of The Well Essentials and The Well Company

Many thanks to Megan Faletra, MS, MPH, RDN for contributing her expertise to this article for 88 Acres. Megan is a Global Health Dietitian and Sustainability Consultant in Boston, Massachusetts, and Founder of The Well Essentials and The Well Company