In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.

rainforestJust get rid of all this annoying rainforest stuff, and you can have all cookie shortening you want.Hi there,
I keep hearing that the increasing demand for palm oil and products with palm oil (hello, Newman-Os!) is leading to rainforest destruction in a serious way.

As a baker with a big ol’ tub of palm oil shortening in the cupboard in a quest to go au naturel and avoid trans fats, I’m starting to feel guilty and want to know more.

What if the palm oil is organic? Does that matter?

Thanks much,
Palm Oil Perplexed Marta

Hey there, Marta,
You heard right: Palm oil (aka palmitate, palm kernel oil, and palm fruit oil) is hard on our planet’s lungs and then some. It’s a top-o-the-heap evil-doer when it comes to ubiquitous and environmentally-destructive ingredients.

Here’s a quick and unsettling lowdown: Palm oil’s bland versatility, shelf-stability and lack of trans fats make it highly desirable to those who seek processed-food ingredients to, well, make processed food. It’s in everything from chocolate to snack crackers to margarine. Remember the creamy center of Oreo cookies? Palm oil provides the famously unctuous mouthfeel. It’s also in cosmetics, soaps, detergents and some plastics. Worldwide, it’s a popular cooking oil. Last but certainly not least, it’s increasingly used for biodeisel production.

As you’ve heard, palm oil’s “moment” comes at the expense of the planet. To keep up with demand, vast monocultures of oil palm are grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, where rainforests and peat forests are razed to make way for oil palm trees. Indigenous people are uprooted and harassed, more carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere and precious habitat is lost, sending species such as the orangutan on the express train toward extinction. The destruction caused by the demand for palm oil is truly unsettling at a visceral level, even for those who have seen worldwide deforestation. Chris Wille, chief of sustainable agriculture for the Rainforest Alliance, told me this: “It’s just mind boggling. I’ve been in this business for a long time and I feel like I’m pretty tough. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of burning forests, but what’s happening in Indonesia and Malaysia – it shocks even us veterans.” If you need a visual of the rainforest being hacked into a moonscape, go here.

palmPalm production streamrolls rainforest in Indonesia. Photo: GreenpeaceAll 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.) There is no perfect choice when it comes to fats and baking, so you’ll have do some soul searching about your own values and health-related needs. Because my cholesterol levels are good and I “trust cows more than chemists,” I use organic butter when I bake. A farmer friend also supplies me with the occasional mason jar of local lard. (Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like homemade rendered pig fat.)

If these options don’t appeal, can you do right by buying organic palm oil? Sadly, in this case the organic label may not be sufficient. Organic certification bans the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but has nothing to say about rainforest management. That’s right–you could burn down pristine rainforest, plant it with a palms, and still get organic certification. Industry and green groups are trying to hammer about a certified-sustainable label that ensures responsible forest management. But right now, sustainable palm oil is both hard to find and controversial.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an international organization of producers, distributors and conservationists, came up with standards to address deforestation and managed to get 1.3 million tonnes of certified sustainable palm oil onto the market last year. Critics of this “green” palm oil cried foul, alleging greenwash and weak certification standards. It was almost a moot point: Most of that oil has languished on the global market because many of the big players won’t pony up the extra money for it. (Surprisingly, Chinese buyers recently stepped up to the plate.) Hoping to spur interest with a good old-fashioned public shaming, the World Wildlife Fund will soon issue a scorecard to show which major palm oil buyers have made commitments to sustainable palm oil.

As consumers, the easiest way to avoid palm oil is to avoid highly processed food, which isn’t good for us anyway. (Palm oil, btw, may be trans-fat free, but it’s relatively high in saturated fat, the kernel oil even more so.) To banish it, read labels and prepare to do more of your own baking. Here’s a list of companies that are big palm oil users. If one of these firms makes a product that causes you to salivate, and it contains palm oil, call or email the company and implore them to use sustainable palm oil. Another school of thought says that not only palm oil is here to stay but that it’s also a vital crop for the developing world–so we’d better make damned-sure that it isn’t grown in a reprehensible way. Picking up the phone or getting online, I think, is the least we can to support the NGOs that are duking it out on our behalf.

orangPut that Oreo down, or this guy gets it. If your big ol’ tub of veggie shortening is organic and you’d like to see if it’s also sustainable, check the manufacturer’s web site. According to a somewhat apologetic Newman’s Own FAQ, the palm oil in their cream-filled cookies comes from co-ops in Colombia and is certified by Pro Forest. It’s a start. The Rainforest Alliance is also currently working with some palm plantations in Latin help them meet standards to earn sustainable certification. Wille told me that within a year consumers will be able to find language on certain food products (cookies and health bars) that will identify palm oil that came from Rain Forest Alliance-certified farms.

Right now there are no official seals or labels that you can rely on and sustainable certification for palm oil, like most things in life, is imperfect. Growers need to, at the very least, commit to ending new deforestation–and according to Wille, conserving “remnant ecosystems within the plantations.” Will this be enough to save our planet’s lungs or orangutans? Time will tell. Perhaps what we need is an orangutan-friendly label for processed foods. The pathos invoked by the sad eyes of an orphaned baby orangutan might lead more of us to pass up a box of cheap Double-Stuf (sic) Oreos for a more principled product (like, say, regular single-stuf Oreos). Even better, maybe we’ll all start baking our own cookies again.

Confession: I have a box of Hint-O-Mint Newman-O’s on my shelf right now, and, yes, I am an eat-the-creamy-center-first kind of person.

Sorry, make that the creamy, evil center.

Thanks much for the question, and keep baking!
Lou