Palm Oil and Sustainability - Why We Choose Global Health

When it comes to food ingredients with a bad reputation, palm oil tops the list. 88 Acres Co-Founder and CEO, Nicole Ledoux, chose not to incorporate palm oil in the original 88 Acres bars and seed butters because of her time spent in Borneo and Malaysia in 2009. She witnessed barges full of old-growth rainforest logs floating down the river and deforested land converted to palm plantations. She saw 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.

As a food company, we believe it is our responsibility when creating products and sourcing ingredients to keep sustainability at the forefront. We apply this philosophy to the ingredients we use and won’t use. Palm oil is one such ingredient that we refuse to use even though it is found in a majority of packaged goods today. The industry’s contribution to climate change through deforestation, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss are why you won’t find palm oil in any of our products.

watermelon seed butter without palm oil

Oil separation in our Maple Seed Butter because we don't use palm oil.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is the oil harvested from the oil palm trees that grow primarily in the Southeast 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 food and cosmetic products because it acts as an emulsifier to prevent oil separation, extends shelf life, and gives many products a desirably smooth texture.

Palm oil is one of the most inexpensive vegetable oils on the market. The low price of palm oil is due to low labor costs and high yields per acre when compared to other oils and emulsifying agents.

harvest palm oil in Indonesia

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, approximately 85% of all palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia (as of 2014, the most recent data available). Palm oil plantations cover over 40 million acres of land that originally housed vibrant rainforests and abundant wildlife.

How Is Palm Oil Used?

Palm oil is used to make many foods and cosmetics shelf-stable, whether by preventing oil separation and/or prolonging a product’s shelf life. It is also used to achieve a smooth texture in cosmetic products like lipstick. You can find it in almost every aisle of the grocery store, from peanut butter, ice cream, and chocolate to shampoo, detergent, soap, and many other everyday staples. It is now even being used in biofuel.

Palm oil can be found in roughly 50% of all packaged goods and is known by many other names, which makes it hard to avoid. Everything from “vegetable oil” to “stearic acid” to “palmitate” may be derived from palm oil and companies are not required to declare on their packaging whether or not they use palm oil. But many products simply use the terms “palm oil,” “palm kernel oil (PKO),” and “red palm oil” on their ingredients list.

OTHER NAMES FOR PALM OIL

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

Palm Oil Nutrition 101

There is much debate in the scientific community regarding the health effects of palm oil. On the plus side, palm oil contains high amounts of vitamins A and E. The more debated topic has to do with the fat content of palm oil. Some research suggests that consuming high amounts of saturated fat in the form of palm oil may increase inflammation and risk of cardiovascular disease. However, various studies have produced mixed results and more research is still needed.

The nutritional properties also differ according to the type of palm oil. While palm oil is harvested from the fruit of the palm oil tree, palm kernel oil (PKO) comes from the seeds of the fruit. Nutritionally, palm oil contains less saturated fat than palm kernel oil. However, it is encouraged to have a diet higher in unsaturated fats, like those found in seeds, than to consume foods containing saturated fat.

palm oil and palm kernel oil from Indonesia

How Does Palm Oil Impact the Environment?

The palm oil industry is unsustainable for many reasons, which is why we continue to avoid its use in our products. The palm oil industry “proliferates the exploitation of laborers and natural habitats, and contributes significantly to climate change,” says Megan Faletra, a Registered Dietitian and sustainable food policy expert.

Deforestation

The greatest threat that palm oil poses to the environment is deforestation. In fact, palm oil is one of the top four commodities responsible for a majority of the world’s deforestation. The palm oil industry has rapidly expanded over the past several decades, causing widespread clearing and burning of old-growth rainforests and peatlands throughout Southeast Asia. The rainforests and peatlands of Southeast Asia are rich in carbon, which they absorb and remove from the atmosphere. When they are destroyed for palm oil plantations, centuries of carbon accumulation are released into the atmosphere. In fact, half of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation. Plus, those destroyed ecosystems that are replaced with palm oil don’t absorb  even close to the amount of carbon from the atmosphere that they used to, which has long-term effects as well.

deforestation for palm plantations

Deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, where most palm oil is grown, is typically done by setting the forest on fire. Fires set for the creation of palm oil plantations cause fatal levels of air pollution, which contributes to thousands of deaths a year in those countries.

Habitat Destruction

Destroyed rainforests and fragmented ecosystems in Southeast Asia also threaten endangered species such as the Sumatran Tiger, the Asian Rhinoceros, and the Sumatran Orangutan. Not only does habitat destruction kill many animals in the fires themselves, but also limits their habitat range, which inhibits their ability to find food, shelter, and safe places to reproduce. As their habitats are destroyed, they are more likely to come into contact with humans who may kill them or sell them on the black market as pets. These animals will likely not survive increased proliferation of palm oil plantations, despite the activity of wildlife sanctuaries aiming to prevent the collapse of these exotic animals.

orangutans in a forest in Indonesia

Biodiversity

Palm oil is produced in a type of agriculture called “monoculture,” which means palm oil plantations grow only one kind of crop across vast areas of land. This lack of plant and insect biodiversity makes ecosystems much more vulnerable to disease and fragments the landscape in a way that destroys formerly harmonious ecosystems. The introduction of monoculture systems and the pesticides that typically come with them threatens many animal, plant, and insect species. Palm oil is by no means the only crop planted in a monoculture system, but they are located in some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.

palm oil plantations is a monoculture crop

Then What Is “Sustainable Palm Oil”?

“There are companies who are looking to completely change the way palm oil is produced to make a giant impact on the industry as a whole,” says Faletra. Partly established by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2003 to establish strict guidelines for sustainable palm oil production in a collaborative setting that benefits producers and reduces the impact on the environment.

However, not every guideline included in the RSPO is a guarantee that best practices are being followed. There is little regulation of the industry during the certification process and even seemingly straightforward definitions of “deforestation” are unclear. The palm oil industry therefore still remains lacking in transparency and verifiable sustainability, which is why we continue to avoid its use in our products.

88 Acres Never Uses Palm Oil

As a company, we are dedicated to promoting the sustainability of the food system in our own community and around the world. All of our ingredients are thoughtfully and carefully sourced; if an ingredient does not meet our standards, we do not use it at all. Because of the well-documented atrocities throughout the palm oil industry, as well as Nicole’s personal experience witnessing the immediate impacts of palm oil production in Southeast Asia, you will not find palm oil in any 88 Acres products.