By now, most of us know to scan ingredient lists for unhealthy hydrogenated oils. But do you ever think about how oil can affect the environment’s health as well? Palm oil is now on the radar of many environmentalists for contributing to carbon emissions, as well as endangering many species native to southeastern Asia. Here is the scoop on its effects.
Farming alone doesn’t seem like a carbon-intensive process, right? But palm oil’s contribution to carbon emissions is not because of the farms themselves; it’s because of the location of the palm farms. These aren’t run-of-the-mill palms you see on vacation, they rely on stripping Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests of their thousands of native species. These rainforests are located on peat land, which is a natural carbon sink containing vast amounts of greenhouse gases. In the process of transforming rainforests into palm farms, carbon is inadvertently released into the atmosphere. This is one reason why Indonesia is one of the top contributors of carbon, even though the country remains largely underdeveloped.
This mass deforestation is also bad news for the habitats of many native species to Indonesia and Malaysia. There are twenty-five toxic chemicals used in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides that are a threat to many wild species in Southeast Asia. What’s worse is that many species are being pursued as pests, diminishing their populations further. Some of the furry friends that are now endangered include orangutans, Sumatran elephants and tigers, and rhinoceroses. This concern is not to be taken lightly – there are 3,000 Sumatran elephants left in the wild and less than 400 Sumatran tigers.
So why is palm still used, you ask? Palm fruit oil and palm kernel oil have a very high fat content – a palm fruit contains fifty percent oil. That’s more than three times as much as an avocado! Palm’s oil efficiency means that some of your go-to products and snacks may contain palm oil. Chocolate products that commonly use palm oil include Nutella, Kit Kats, and for anyone reading in the U.K., Maltesers, Cadbury, and Aero bars. Additionally, palm oil can be found in Ritz Crackers, Pringles, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and Earth Balance buttery spread. In terms of cosmetics, brands that use palm oil in their products include some of my favorites – Herbal Essences, Lancome, Clinique, Neutrogena, and Dr. Bronner’s.
But don’t fret! Even though many of your favorite products may contain palm oil, some of these companies are making the effort to do it sustainably. Earth Balance and Dr. Bronner’s source some to all of their palm oil from locations where it is a native species. Both companies are also in support of several sustainable palm oil organizations. So before you retire your favorite snacks and beauty products, first look into how the company sources the palm oil. Then comes the fun part, find alternatives! Do a taste test of palm-free snacks and sample some palm-free soaps and shampoos to find eco-friendly products that are just as good as their palm-filled counterparts.
Question: Do you use any of these products? Are you surprised? Will you be reconsidering your purchases now?
Photo sources: oneVillage Initiative and tabiii, via Flickr