Ask Umbra: Is somebody sneaking palm oil into my food and shampoo?
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Q. Is there a database of food and household products that use vs. don’t use palm oil? If not, would there be a way that we, your readers, could crowdsource one? (I know other forms of action have more impact, but it’d be nice to be able to vote with our wallets, too.)
A. Dearest Reader #27352,
Before we begin, may I call you something else? Your moniker is a bit, well, robotic. How about Julius, in honor of noted treehugger and founder of American Arbor Day Julius Sterling Morton? OK, Julius it is.
Now down to business: Shopping is tough enough when our enemies are obvious, like triclosan in our soap or vinyl in our house siding. But you’ve put your finger on a particularly slippery problem with palm oil: Unlike, say, gluten or peanuts, it’s very tricky to figure out whether a product contains palm oil or not. No, palm oil lurks in the shadows like a double agent, using dozens of aliases to infiltrate half of the supermarket.
Let’s take a step back and review why this concerns us. Palm oil — an ingredient you’ll find in soap, toothpaste, shampoo, crackers, margarine, peanut butter, chocolate, and a whole lot more disconcertingly common products — comes from the tropical oil palm tree. Its cultivation is, quite simply, devastating to the ecosystems of countries like Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia because it means the rainforest is being razed to make way for oil palm plantations. And that in turn means the destruction of habitat for orangutans and Sumatran tigers, human rights abuses and poverty for the locals, and the loss of some of our best carbon sinks.
Knowing this, a lot of people like you, Julius, want to keep the grease off their hands by avoiding products with palm oil. There is one major industry group, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, but it’s pooh-poohed by many enviros who say its real business is greenwashing. So where can an orangutan lover turn?
As far as I know, there’s no universal database declaring yeah or nay on all consumer products out there. But I did find some meaty lists, like this one from Good Guide, this from Ethical Consumer, this from Rainforest Foundation U.K., and this from Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia. They’re a good place to start looking for your cookies or bar soap.
In the absence of a more comprehensive database, we can also do a little sleuthing to help sniff out palm oil in disguise. This is no easy task — there are almost 50 different ingredient names for the stuff, including the ever-so-helpful “vegetable oil” — but it’s good to know nonetheless. Keep an eye out for the word palm (palm kernel oil, palmitate, palmate), the oil palm’s scientific name, Elaeis guineensis (seen on cosmetics labels rather than food), and sodium lauryl/laureth. Another clue: If saturated fat makes up about half of the product’s total fat content, it likely contains palm oil.
Even with this knowledge, we’re still flying a little blind out there. (“Vegetable oil”? Come on!) That’s why I love your crowdsourcing idea, Julius. We’ve already started compiling a reader-submitted list of products to avoid on Facebook and Twitter. Let’s keep the conversation going: If you’ve discovered a brand that doesn’t use palm oil (or you want to call out a brand to avoid), hit us up on either site with the hashtag #tellgrist.
But while you’re all voting pro-tiger with your wallets, don’t forget about the even bigger steps you can take to fight deforestation in our tropics. Some organizations argue that boycotting palm oil entirely won’t solve the problem. The better tack, they say, is to agitate for truly sustainable oil palm agriculture, as palm-growing countries need the profits and the world needs plant oil. So contact the big buyers (your Walmarts and Cargills) as well as cosmetics and food companies; tell them you want only oil that didn’t come at the point of a bulldozer.
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