Palm oil is destroying rainforests. But try going a day without it.
After spending years reporting on the controversial ingredient, a journalist grapples with her own consumption.
ON A SNOWY December morning, I crawled from my bed in the dark. In the bathroom, I washed my hands, brushed my teeth, and slathered some moisturizer on my face. Before the waking sun had painted the mountains out my window a pale pink, before I’d even made it into the kitchen, I already had palm oil on my hands, face, and tongue.
I coaxed my sleepy son into a warm shower. And there it was again, in his soap, shampoo, conditioner, and the lotion I rubbed on him afterward: more palm oil. He was barely awake, and yet my five-year-old was already coated in the stuff.
To see just how ubiquitous palm oil had become in our lives, I decided to track my every encounter with it throughout the day.
In the bathroom
As I write in the December issue, palm oil is the world’s most popular edible oil, making up a third of all vegetable oil consumed across the planet. Oil palm trees are a highly efficient crop, but they’ve been grown at the expense of vast stretches of thriving forests, and their spread has resulted in human rights abuses, species declines, and dangerous emissions of carbon dioxide.
You might be thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve never seen “palm oil” listed as an ingredient in any of my skin-care products.’ That’s probably true, but it’s there nonetheless. Palm oil is an ingredient in other ingredients.
Take decyl glucoside, for example, which is listed amid the otherwise easy-to-pronounce contents of the strawberry-scented body wash my family likes. Decyl glucoside is a cleansing agent used in many baby shampoos and sensitive-skin products. It’s made, in part, from decanol—a fatty alcohol molecule often derived from palm oil.
Lauryl glucoside, too, is a surfactant made from coconut or palm oil, and it is another component of that same body wash. Surfactants help to combine otherwise impossible-to-mix materials, like oil and water. This surfactant is also in my toothpaste, along with sodium lauryl sulfate, another ingredient derived from palm oil and used to make the toothpaste foam.
Even our conditioner contains palm oil in the form of glycerin as well as cetearyl alcohol—a common ingredient used to thicken many conditioners.
Of course, just because a product contains palm oil doesn’t mean it’s contributing to ecological destruction. Take Alaffia, a socially conscious company that makes our body wash and conditioner. Alaffia’s Facebook page specifically addresses its use of palm oil: “Our natural West African palm oil is grown and harvested by small-scale farmers in the Maritime region of Togo, from the town of Tsevie to Kpalime. The oil is extracted by our Fair Trade cooperative in Sokodé using traditional methods.” According to Tom’s of Maine, which makes my peppermint fluoride toothpaste, all its ingredients are made using only palm oil that’s certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
But it’s difficult to even determine whether your products contain palm oil—let alone whether it might be sustainably sourced. I spent hours later that day squinting at the fine-print ingredient lists on all the products my family had used and trying to determine which chemical compounds were produced from palm oil. My Trader Joe’s face moisturizer, it turned out, was an oil palm grower’s dream: Ascorbyl palmitate, retinyl palmitate, ethylhexylglycerin, glyceryl stearate, and so on, all made in some fashion with palm. (Trader Joe’s product FAQs contain information about their coconut and olive oils, but nothing about palm oil; the company is not a member of the RSPO.)
In the kitchen
A funny thing happened, though, as I continued to track my palm oil consumption. Once I stepped into my kitchen, I barely found the stuff anywhere. Yes, there was a jar of Justin’s almond butter that contained it, to help keep the nut butter spreadable. (Justin’s uses certified sustainable palm oil.) A box of Kind bars drizzled in chocolate; as with so many energy bars, palm oil is used to give the chocolate a creamy texture for coatings. (Kind LLC is a member of the RSPO.) And a box of Nabisco saltine crackers, bought when my husband was sick a few weeks earlier, where again, the palm oil lends a vaguely creamy quality. (Nabisco is a subsidiary of Mondelēz, which received a score of 9 out of 10 on the WWF2016 Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard.)
But that was it. For breakfast, my son ate a bowl of plain yogurt with fresh apples and frozen berries, and an egg fried in olive oil. I had toast (from bakery bread, which contains fewer and simpler ingredients than packaged sandwich bread) with avocado and Marmite. My husband ate leftover rice with a fried egg and spinach. No palm oil anywhere.
That’s because most of the things we ate that morning were whole foods—apples, berries, avocados, eggs—or those with a very short list of ingredients. And most of the edible products that contain palm oil are not whole foods but processed ones.
“Processed” food generally refers to all those packages of things with long ingredient lists that line supermarket shelves and populate fast-food menus. Products that are, as food writer Melanie Warner puts it, “far from the source,” meaning many steps removed from their natural starting point.
Most processed foods, says Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, have “had healthy, naturally occurring things taken away and lots of stuff added to them that in large quantities isn’t good for us—salt, sugar, fat, artificial additives.”
Many heavily processed foods are bad for us, and most are at the very least not providing us much that’s beneficial. And, as it turns out, it’s in these items that much of the food-based palm oil resides. Think Oreos, Halloween candy, frozen pizza. If you want to consume less palm oil, there’s a simple way to do it: Eat less processed food. You’ll end up healthier in the process.
There are also skin care products that don’t contain palm oil, such as limited-ingredient soaps made from olive oil. But it’s not necessary to completely eliminate palm oil from your life. In fact, boycotting it could have ramifications that are even worse for the environment. Producing the same amount of another vegetable oil—soybean, say—would take up even more land.
And eliminating support for the companies trying to make palm oil production less ecologically damaging would give a competitive advantage to the ones that care only about turning a profit, everything else be damned. Supporting the companies that are moving away from destructive practices will help make the whole industry more sustainable.
Since its formation in 2004, many critics have argued that the RSPO—an industry-NGO partnership—does not set high enough standards. The RSPO’s Malaysian CEO, Darrel Webber, argues that it’s crucial to create a tent big enough to let more companies in—and in the process teach more of them about the importance of protecting ecosystems and treating workers fairly.
“I would love to drive a Ferrari,” he says, using a favorite analogy, “and go very fast, impress my friends. But it would just be me and another person because it’s a two-seater. The reality is, I have to drive a bus if I want to make a change. We have to find a way to bring on board the whole group.”
Several NGOs, including WWF, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, issue guides to help consumers make smart decisions about palm oil. It just requires a little time and research—which, when you think about it, makes sense for products you are eating, bathing in, and rubbing on your children’s skin.