Palm Oil: 8 Facts Everyone Should Know

Palm oil is an important plant-based ingredient in a wide range of products, from foods to cosmetics to biodiesel fuel. However, producing enough palm oil to meet the needs of manufacturers and consumers around the world while also protecting the environment.

Consequently, it is critical that everyone understands what palm oil is, how it is used and why sustainable palm oil is so important. Below are eight facts about palm oil

1. Palm oil comes from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. 

This type of tree is grown in tropical climates all around the world in a climate belt that includes Central America, parts of South America, Central Africa, parts of the Middle East and areas in Southeast Asia. Most of the world’s supply of palm oil is grown in Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia).

2. Palm oil contributes significantly to the global economy. 

It is estimated that palm oil production will have reached $92 billion by the end of 2021, and that number will continue to grow. Needless to say, an industry this large employs countless people across all palm oil production, supply and distribution chains and supports the livelihood of individuals, families and communities.

3. Palm oil is used in a long list of products.

Some examples include foods like cookies, ice cream, chocolate, instant noodles, pizza dough and margarine. Palm oil helps give cookies and other baked goods a smooth and airy texture, gives ice cream its creamy consistency, helps keep chocolate from melting while giving it a shiny appearance and improves margarine since it is free of trans fats and solid at room temperature. It is also used in non-edible products like soaps, hair conditioners, and cosmetics. In these items, the same characteristics are vital in producing the desired attributes for the final products. Palm oil can even be used to produce biofuels like biodiesel.

4. Palm oil is used in over half the products on grocery store shelves.

More than 50% of items in stores have palm oil as an ingredient. Because of the wide variety of palm oil products that are available, palm oil and its derivatives are referred to in product ingredient panels in many different ways. Some of the most common names found on nutrition labels include: palm shortening, palm fruit oil, palm stearin, palm olein, oleic acid, ethyl palmitate, glycerin, fatty acids, sodium lauryl, among many others. Some of those ingredients can come from other sources, but if you see those names, it is quite likely that the ingredient is derived from palm oil.

5. African palm oil trees have an impressive yield.

As compared to soybeans and rapeseed—two other plants commonly used to produce oil—the African palm oil tree produces 3.63 metric tons of oil per hectare versus 0.31 and 0.80 tons respectively for the others.

6. Palm oil production that is not done responsibly is bad for the environment.

As with most plant cultivation processes, there is a right way and a wrong way to produce palm oil from an environmental responsibility perspective. Unfortunately, many palm oil companies produce their products the wrong way. This results in extensive deforestation, which is a major contributor to climate change and a serious risk to the habitats of (and ultimately the survival of) many animal species. In addition, disreputable palm oil producers also commit human rights abuses through their labor policies and the displacement of local populations.

7. There IS an environmentally conscious way to produce palm oil!

When African palm oil trees are grown and nurtured sustainably and their fruit is harvested by workers who are treated properly, all stakeholders (including the environment) win. Manufacturers get high-quality palm oil and the ability to say truthfully to consumers that they care about the environment. Consumers value responsibly produced palm oil and communities earn their livelihood from reliable work and the environmental benefits from policies and processes developed to protect it. Third party certifying agencies audit and certify sustainable palm production to ensure responsible methods are used. Look for the RPSO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) and Rainforest Alliance logos on your favorite products!

8. Sustainable palm oil is better than NO palm.

Given concerns over the non-sustainable palm oil, it can be easy to think that avoiding palm altogether is the answer. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Since palm oil yields are so much higher than those of other edible oils, it would require much more land (and possible even greater habitat destruction) to replace it with other crops such as soybean. In which case, the best solution is to carefully seek out certified sustainable palm oil.

Sustainable palm oil is better than NO palm

Ultimately, sustainability can be—and must be—the future of the palm oil industry. And the good news is that both corporations and consumers can play a role in pushing for that bright future. They can do this by educating themselves about sustainable palm oil production practices and then voicing their opinion about the importance of earth-friendly practices in how and where they spend their money.