Tuesday, 02 April 2013 05:52

Is Palm Oil Vegan?

Rate this item
(0 votes)

"If conscientious consumption means we avoid contributiong to suffering, palm is clearly problematic." ~ Mark Hawthorne


My vegan lifestyle is a continuous evolution - I'm constantly learning something new about food, nutrition, the environment, ethics, politics, etc. No wonder many people find veganism intimidating - there's a lot to consider! When I first went vegan I looked at it very simply - I didn't eat any products that came from animals and I could verify this by looking at labels, seeking out vegan certifications and avoiding the obvious (meat, dairy, leather, silk, etc). But as I became more passionate about the lifestyle and made it my career to inspire and educate others on the topic, I realized that there's a lot more than meets the eye. Some may find this overwhelming, but I believe that if we take things step by step and strive to be informed, we can each develop a well-rounded perspective on our personal choices. A perfect example is palm oil - in this article I explore this confusing and touchy subject, and offer some suggestions on how you can keep your purchases as ethical as possible

When I first heard about the ethical (and environmental) issues with palm oil I admit that I felt a bit annoyed - it's derived from plants and some of the most beloved vegan companies use it, so how could there be anything wrong with it?! Honestly, I was coming from a place of frustrated ignorance. Thus I started collecting information via conversations with friends and companies, but remained skeptical. At Expo East 2012 I spoke with a few businesses about their use of palm oil, and it was an uncomfortable topic - some were working on finding alternatives, others were irked by the issue. Six months later at Expo West 2013 I noticed several brands proudly displaying the words "palm oil free" on their packaging - things were changing fast! Meanwhile, VegNews had published a phenomenal article on the topic.

Mark Hawthorne wrote "The Problem with Palm Oil" in the magazine's February 2013 issue and here are some bullet points that opened my eyes:

  • Palm oil is in everything from soap to soup [...] from margarines to deterents to cosmetics. [...] Here are but a few that vegetarians might find in their bathrooms, fridges, and cupboards: candy, cookies, crackers, energy bars, lip balm, peanut butter, soymilk, vegan cheese. [check out this list of organic and natural products with palm oil]
  • It's estimated that no less than half of all household goods are made with palm ingredients.
  • Though touted as an alternative to both trans fats and fossil fuels, the ubiquitous oil is wreaking environmental havoc and endangering wild animals.
  • Rainforests are rapidly giving way to countless rows of neatly planted oil palm trees.
  • Orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, otters, pigs, and crocodiles, not to mention...90 species of fish [...are] impacted by the loss of habitat and environmental destruction brought on by successive waves of clear-cutting, oil-palm tree cultivation, and palm-oil production.
  • Palm oil enables animal poachers and traders access to areas that were once remote.
  • Of the 50,000 or so surviing orangutans, more than 2,500 are killed every year in relation to palm oil. [...] Not only are [they] losing their treetop dweelings, but they face starvation [...] are beaten, their limbs are cut off with machetes, hot oil is thrown at them, they're burned. [...] Often mothers are killed on or near plantations and their babies are taken for the pet trade.
  • Harboring one of the highest orangutan densities in the world, Tripa is blanketed in [...] peat that is composed almost entirely of carbon. [...] Fires set by palm oil companies raged across the peat forest throughout much of 2012, releasing perhaps a million tons of carbon dioxide. In 2007 the palm-oil frenzy made Indonesia the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
  • The industry's liberal use of toxic fertilizers and chemicals [...] contaminates the soil, groundwater, and crops, while tons of untreated palm oil-mill effluent is discharged intro rivers and seeps into the terrain. 
  • Palm oil can be listed under a wide variety of names. These include: glyceryl stearate, palm kernel oil, palmate, palmitate, sodium laureth sulphate, and stearic acid. [see article for full list or click here]

I highly recommend that you read the full article, which also covers the human right issues with palm oil production.

palm oil orangutan rainforestactionnetwork

A few facts Hawthorne didn't hit on:

  • It’s increasingly used for biodeisel production. "The production of biofuels, long a cornerstone of the quest for greener energy, may sometimes create more harmful emissions than fossil fuels, scientific studies are finding." (Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an Eco-Nightmare)
  • "Palm oil is now cheap because of poor environmental practices and labor abuses." (Eco-Nightmare)
  • "All of this probably puts a damper on your home-baked trans-fat-free cookies. (Ummm. Is that chocolate chip cookies I smell? No, wait. It’s the rainforest burning.)" (Palm oil, healthy rainforests, and your kitchen)

Well, what can we do to hault and clean up this mess that we've made? Here are some solutions:

  1. The easiest way to avoid palm oil is to avoid highly processed food. Sticking with whole, plant-based foods is highly recommended. When you're buying packaged items that have ingredients that you don't recognize, beware!
  2. Become an informed consumer - read every label on each product you buy and if palm oil is on the ingredient list consider the impact. If you trust the brand, see if you can find information about where they source from (see below) and contact them for specifics.
  3. Hawthorne suggests, "urge companies to adopt better practices or adandon palm oil all together" (did you know that 40% of Earth Balance's customer feedback is about palm, which has inspired them work on palm-free products and source sustainably in the meantime!)
    • Companies can source from areas where palm oil is native (and often organic), such as West Africa. Body care brands like Dr. Bronner's and Alaffia are doing this.
    • Plantations can be redirected onto non-forest lands (in Indonesia for example) if local communities and indigenous people approve of it. 
    • Some organizations claim that there are ways to produce sustainable and responsible palm oil - companies can get certification that protects communities and workers, and forbids the clearing of new areas for production. However, others argue that this is greenwashing that doesn't account for species extinction and human rights violations. Check out WWF's Palm Oil Buyers' Scorecard for more details.
    • One Green Planet has a fantastic, super detailed list on who's doing what and how you can help influence those that could use a nudge.
  4. Spread the word. Bring this topic up in conversation with friends and family members. See how they feel about it and offer up some of the facts with your own opinion.

palm oil rainforestactionnetwork

Here are some opinions I found from bloggers:

  • http://eatingconsciously.tumblr.com/ makes some good points about bananas, coconuts, sugar and other crops that are harvested unsustainably and I can agree with the idea that "commenting on a vegan’s Facebook photo of a Daiya wedge and telling them how they’re not vegan seems like a really counterproductive act." The comments on this post are worth a read too.
  • http://gonepie.com hits the nail on the head when saying that "the most popular, palatable and healthy options to dairy products available in stores contain palm" and then offers some alternatives (including recipes) and suggested actions. 
  • POWERFUL WORDS from http://eatdrinkbetter.com/: "momentary pleasure makes a poor moral compass. Killing in the absence of need, for no better reason than transitory taste sensations, seems to many of us like an incredibly bad idea. People choose to follow a plant-based diet for numerous reasons, but one of the most commonly cited is compassion towards fellow creatures. If we are going to commit to conscious eating, and embrace a diet that rejects killing for no better reason than random human whim, we need to pedal that bike all the way into the garage and reconsider our willingness to support the palm oil industry."
  • http://vegansofig.tumblr.com/ also phrased this well "veganism is not only a diet, it is a lifestyle that aims to be as cruelty free as one can be. If that’s the case, one cannot ignore the ethical implications of palm oil consumption."

Elephant Journal, another publisher who has caught my eye with their palm oil articles, has some great resources on the matter, including infographics and videos. I'll wrap this up with a quote from their head honcho Waylon:

"It’s time to make a change. And change starts with us. So let’s make some (respectful) noise—and ask those companies we love and support with our hard-earned dollars to get responsible."


After reading this, how do you feel and where do you stand? Will you continue to buy palm oil? Do you consider it to be a vegan ingredient/does it meet your vegan standards? Will you contact companies about the matter?

Images from Flickr via Rainforest Action Network and oneVillage Initiative

Read 79501 times Last modified on Sunday, 14 April 2013 21:47