Some months ago, my boyfriend shared a video with me of an orangutan attempting to fight off a bulldozer that was destroying its home. It was a video of dense jungle being torn down, to make way for a new palm oil plantation. The orangutan not only climbed on the bulldozer, it also tried to strike it. To make it STOP. That video — and the knowledge that, not only were we (humans) doing this terrible thing, but the orangutan knew that we were doing this terrible thing and was trying to stop us — made me pause, and decide that it was time to not only stop buying products that contain palm oil, but also to speak out more against the value chains, producers, manufacturers and retailers that are more than happy to support this destruction in the name of profit and convenience. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, and it is in about half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket. While palm oil is the most efficient source of vegetable oil, its rapid expansion threatens some of the planet’s most important and sensitive habitats.” You can read more about palm oil on your own (there is a LOT written about it, and this blog is not trying to be your Google). With volunteers, I’ve created lists to help you identify palm oil in South African products and products sold in South Africa.
PS: The video below is not the one I am referring to above, but it does include information on deforestation.
Identifying Products That Contain Palm Oil
The first challenge in not buying palm oil is knowing what products do and do not contain it as an ingredient. This remains extremely tricky. My favourite commercial sugar- and salt-free peanut butter brand lists ‘peanuts’ as its only ingredient, but when I asked the company for details it turns out that the ‘stabiliser’ is a palm oil product… This ‘camouflaging’ is worse in the cosmetics industry, where so many ingredients are derived from palm oil but not labelled as such. When I asked for participation in this exercise from the cosmetics industry, I got pretty much shut down. It was quite plainly something they do NOT want to discuss. Another area of frustration is the ‘wishlist’ versus reality status of many large manufacturers and retailers. I cannot tell you the number of times we were told that XYZ company or brand has an amazing ‘roadmap’ for how sustainable they are going to be in 2020. Or 2025. But for right now, they had done almost nothing. And in many cases, these ‘roadmaps’ are already five, ten years old.
The bottom line is: with few exceptions, the majority of manufacturers and retailers have done bugger-all about cutting out palm oil or switching to certified sustainable sources (this in theory means that the forests are better managed and so on; although that is also debatable). Why has this been their attitude? Because it could. Because we all still buy all the same crap. But now, things are changing. We have information, and with information we can change our ways.
What I Learned From This?
The list of products containing palm oil all still a work in progress. I am learning to read ingredient lists more carefully, and to be a lot more picky about what I buy. I am also teaching my kids about reading the labels. On the plus side, my grocery basket is MUCH healthier than when I started this exercise. I have been a health writer for many years, and one of the things that I realised was that the popularity of palm oil directly coincided with the decline, and banning, of partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) in foodstuffs. Palm oil appears in most of the same food items trans fats used to — and they are almost all really unhealthy: biscuits, chocolates, crisps, instant meals, cakes, donuts, fried fast food, etc. So, the best recommendation I can give for cutting out palm oil products is to STOP BUYING SHIT. This will have multiple knock-on benefits. And, if you do want to eat bread or have a delicious cake, make it yourself (I have started baking bread) or go and get it from your local bakery (ask them what oils they use) or home industry. With the the exception of rusks (which all seem to be made with palm oil now), none of the home bake ladies I have spoken to even know what palm oil is. Also: just buy less. BUY. LESS. Look at our supermarket aisles. We have. So. Much. Shit. The reason manufacturers use so much palm oil is because we have an apparently insatiable appetite for deep fried oily salty sweet chocolate enrobed shit, that also needs to stay viable on the shelf for months at a time. We do not need that chip, that chocolate, more than that orangutan needs a safe jungle home.
We started working on this list several months ago, but it has a long way to go. It is very time-consuming, because not only are there MILLIONS of products (one store might have 25 types of bread!), but most retailers simply don’t make ingredient information available online (funny that), so it has to be done manually (i.e. when you’re in a shop and can take a photo of the ingredients list). We have also put this list together because we cared about the issue – nobody has been paid for this work. It’s not some professional agency effort. We’ve used Google Sheets, so it is easy to tabulate and easy to share, and is also free.
The way the list works is as simple as we could think to make it. We have two categories of products: groceries, and cosmetics. For each of those, we list products that we can identify as belonging into one of three categories:
Contains no palm oil (green): This means it is not made with palm oil at all.
Contains certified sustainable sources of palm oil: This means it may contain palm oil, but that the manufacturer is committed to and has already implemented a 100% sustainable palm oil policy. Companies that promise to be sustainable one day in the magic future are not included. We have included this category because it’s not realistic to think that there will be ‘no palm oil’ at all in the future. It remains an important and useful oil, but it MUST be sustainably managed and probably used in much smaller quantities.
Contains palm oil (unknown source): We believe that you should not be purchasing any of these products (unless you absolutely have no alternative, and the product is essential). This might be really hard. Even if you can’t replace everything, try cut out as much as you can.
What this list is: These lists are there to help you identify ingredients in South African products/products sold in South Africa which may not always clearly be explained on the packaging. Many manufacturers are NOT upfront about the palm oil content in their products. The list will show you which big brands and manufacturers are and are not doing anything about sustainable palm oil and deforestation. If you’re angry that your favourite soap has palm oil (I know I am!) then don’t just change brands, but write to them too and tell them why you’re changing. Demand change.
What this list is NOT: This list is not about any other problems in food or cosmetic production. It’s not tackling child labour, animal testing, GMO ingredients, or any of that. You can find many other resources on these. This is not that.
The List: The link to the list is below. Before you click, I would like to ask that instead of just sharing the link you share this post, so that everyone reads the context of the data.
Comments: If you have any comments on the list, you can email NOPALMOILZA @ GMAIL dot com. Please don’t email me to lecture me about what you think I do or don’t understand about palm oil.
Brands: If your brand has been included on the list and we have made a mistake about its ingredients or categorisation, please email us on the same address and we will fix it. Please also note, we have tried to get hold of many brands for this spreadsheet, but usually got pawned off to a customer care line that didn’t know anything about palm oil. The onus is on you, not us, to do better. Be more transparent with your palm oil in future.
Volunteers: If you would like to volunteer to help update the list, then please mail the same address together with a few lines about yourself. Ideally, you need good internet access at home, and solid excel skills.
[This entry is written by Nechama Brodie, but the Palm Oil list has been put together with the help of a handful of volunteers. If you would like to volunteer to help, you can email NOPALMOILZA @ GMAIL dot com. Please also note that the palm oil database will hopefully be updated over time, so keep refreshing to check. – Nechama]
*Images (Unsplash and WikiMedia Commons) and text used under creative commons licence