7 things you probably don’t know about palm oil

If you're one of those reading product labels, you know that palm oil can be found in cakes and frozen vegetables. But have you ever paid attention to the ingredients of your cosmetics? If so, you would discover palm oil even there. It is estimated that every American consumes almost 8 kg of this fat annually. Hence, it is worth knowing what is involved in its production. This is the first step towards making informed choices!

2 min read


Ksenia Pisera

Journalist, popularizer of knowledge about environmental and climate protection

It is common to find palm fat in biscuits, packaged nuts, bread, margarine, soaps, shampoos, and lipsticks, among other things.

1. What is palm oil?

It is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). It is native to Africa, but the most extensive plantations are in Malaysia and Indonesia. This is where about 85-90% of palm oil comes from, but production also takes place in Thailand, Colombia, and Guatemala, among others.

Two types of oil are produced from the fruit of the oil palm. Crushing the kernels produces palm kernel oil while pressing the fruit produces oil from the pulp of the oil palm (commonly known as palm oil). Importantly, these fats have different compositions and properties. Oil from the pulp of the oil palm has significant amounts of vitamin E. Raw palm oil also contains squalene, coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, and vitamin K. After refining, however, it loses some of these vital components.

The palm kernel oil is also used to produce hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) palm fat, which is a source of trans fats – these you should avoid.

  1. What is palm oil in?

The WWF has listed the use of palm oil by segment in Poland. The largest amounts of this fat are found in food (34%) and chemicals and cosmetics (34%). It is also found in animal feed (30%) and biofuels (2%).

Therefore, it is common to find palm fat in biscuits, packaged nuts, bread, margarine, soaps, shampoos, and lipsticks, among other things. If palm oil, palm fat or palm oil is not mentioned on the packaging of a product, its use may be indicated by the labels:

– CBE and CBS fats

– emulsifier E471

– isopropyl myristate

– palmitic acid

– glycerol stearate

– sorbitan stearate

– cetyl alcohol

– ascorbyl palmitate

– tocopheryl acetate

– stearyl alcohol

– oleyl alcohol and octyldodecanol

– sorbitan oleate and stearate

– ethylhexyl palmitate

3. Why is palm oil everywhere?

If you’re still reading and haven’t rushed to the kitchen or bathroom to check which products in your home contain palm oil, find out why it’s so commonly used.

There are several reasons. On the one hand, it’s because of its properties. Palm fat is odourless and colourless, so it won’t change the taste or texture of products. It is semi-solid at room temperature, so it can be used in spreads, among other things. Since it is also resistant to high temperatures, it is used for frying and cooking. Due to its oxidation resistance, products with palm oil in their ingredients list can be stored longer.

Furthermore, the oil palm thrives all year round and is productive. Even a small plantation can produce a lot of oil. It is estimated that one hectare of palm plantation can yield up to 10 times more oil than other oil crops. The most efficient palm plantations can produce up to 8 tonnes of oil per hectare per year.

This, combined with the low cost of land and labour at the production sites and the simple production process, makes it simply cheap.

4. What are the main problems with palm oil?

The large, ever-growing demand for palm oil involves the need to establish more plantations. In practice, this often means cutting down or burning entire tracts of rainforest – the most biologically diverse forest in the world.

Figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) show that Indonesia’s forest cover declined from 118.5 million hectares in 1990 to 91.0 million hectares in 2015. In contrast, between 2005 and 2011, the rate of establishment of oil palm plantations averaged 514,000 hectares per year, and by 2010 they already covered 7.7 million hectares. New plantations are therefore being established at a rapid pace. However, it is difficult to say clearly where deforestation has occurred for oil palm cultivation and which areas have been degraded previously by fires or illegal logging.

Deforestation thus has a tremendous impact on global temperature increases. It is estimated to account for around 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions. It also badly affects animal life, including pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos, mist panthers, and orangutans. In 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said increased palm oil production had affected at least 193 species classified as “threatened”. The organisation also recorded that “oil palm expansion could affect 54% of all threatened mammals and 64% of all threatened birds globally”.

Another but equally important issue are the social costs. On the one hand, deforestation provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, including occupation for the poorest people. On the other hand, we must also consider difficult working conditions. In this context, we highly recommend reading the report prepared by two organisations, Human Rights Everywhere and Coordination Belge Colombie.

Fourthly – health. In the food industry, you can easily find hydrogenated palm oil, which contains trans fats. These, when consumed excessively, are very harmful to the body. A person whose diet is dominated by trans fats is at risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity.

5. Are there alternatives to palm oil?

There are quite a few types of vegetable fats, so it all depends on the desired characteristics. In Poland, sunflower, rapeseed or linseed oils are produced. Other alternatives include olive oil, soybean oil and shea butter.

A common argument in this context is that replacing palm oil with other fats will involve shifting cultivation and greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. Due to oil palms’ high productivity, other cultivations will need much more space. This is the point of view represented by the WWF among others. On the other hand, scientists and organisations such as Palm Oil Watch argue that it is difficult to compare sacrificing a tropical rainforest for one hectare of cultivation to a hectare of agricultural land in the temperate zone. This is primarily because of the biological richness and the fact that rainforests only cover 7% of the total area of the globe.

An alternative to palm oil would also be simply choosing products that do not contain any fat.

  1. What is certified palm oil?

Palm oil certification confirms that the relevant criteria have been met, including transparency in the production process, responsibility for protecting the environment and natural resources, respect for workers’ rights, a responsible approach to plantation development, and a commitment to continuous process improvement.

7. What can be done?

First and foremost, it’s worth learning more. And although it may seem overwhelming, remember knowledge supports you in making informed choices. The starting point should be to acquire sound and scientific knowledge.

What’s next? There are many possibilities! First, read labels and influence producers with your daily choices. You can buy products containing palm oil from certified cultivation. You can also try to shop avoiding this ingredient, e.g., by choosing fresh products instead of ready-made and processed ones. Besides being a good choice for the planet, it’s also good for your health!

You can also support organisations that protect rainforests and talk to your loved ones about the environmental costs of palm fat production. The more people are aware and involved, the more good you can do for climate and environmental protection!