5 Things You Need To Know About Palm Oil

Palm oil production has increased in recent decades. It is now used in products from cosmetics to packaged food items. Here’s what you need to know about palm oil.

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What Is It?

Palm oil is an oil byproduct of the oil palm tree, also known as the African palm. At full maturity, oil palm trees stand at 40 feet tall. The oil palm trees produce a red to orange fruit in giant bushels. 

The oil from these fruits are extracted in two ways, first, by squeezing the fruits, producing crude palm oil. Second, by crushing the kernel or pit in the middle of each fruit, known as palm kernel oil. 

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Where Does It Grow?

The oil palm or African palm is native to African regions and only grows in tropical climates. However, it was introduced to South-East Asia, Indonesia, and Malaysia over 100 years ago. Today, 85% of palm oil agriculture takes place in Indonesia and Malaysia, but it grows in over 40 countries.

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How Is It Used?

The demand for palm oil has grown exponentially in the last decades due to its diverse range of uses. You will find palm oil in cosmetics, hygiene products (like soap), detergents, chocolates, and processed and/or pre-packaged foods. In fact, an estimate by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) claims 50% of all packaged foods in your average grocery store contain palm oil as an additive. Palm oil is also used for other areas of agriculture, including animal feed, to increase the caloric value. 

Since palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature, it is often used in many products (including food) to create a creamy or spreadable texture. In comparison to other oils, palm oil holds its stability at high temperatures well, making it a desired oil for fried foods in order to deliver a satisfying, crunchy texture. 

Its use in packaged foods comes from its ability to extend shelf life and retain freshness, as palm oil does not interfere with the flavor or scent of goods.

Palm tree
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What Is The Problem?

The versatility of palm oil is what has created its high demand and profitability. As mentioned, 85% of palm oil harvested for the global market is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, two countries with high biodiversity and tropical forests. To create land for palm oil production, forests have been cut down, burned, and replanted with oil palm trees in these countries and others around the world. 

Palm oil agriculture is responsible for deforestation, air pollution, soil erosion, water pollution, habitat destruction, and threatens the health of ecosystems for endangered species, including the Sumatran Tiger. 

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What’s The Solution?

Palm oil production, while not generally sustainable today, could be made into a more sustainable practice with governmental oversight. Illegal operations often take place in countries like Indonesia, where funding for government projects is limited. Illegal operations clear forested land (even in protected areas) at faster rates than traditional agriculture for a cash grab. 

There are companies who pledge to only use palm oil if they are certain it came from a sustainable operation. Support companies and retailers that are RSPO certified. 

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Palm trees
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Key Takeaways
  • Palm oil is an oil byproduct of the oil palm tree, also known as the African palm.
  • Palm oil is a driver of deforestation and pollution in developing countries that depend on the profits from palm oil harvesting.
  • Support companies and government oversight prioritizing sustainable palm oil production.