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The most common foods that contain palm oil and why it's so bad

Palm oil has had a lot of press lately. Jessica Spiro explains what you need to know about it and which foods it's in.

by: Jessica Spiro | 27 Nov 2018
chocolate chunks

(images: Upsplash)

You’ve likely already seen the heart-wrenching Christmas advert released by British retailer, Iceland in partnership with Greenpeace. If you haven’t seen it, get your tissues ready, it’s a tearjerker. 

While the ad has been banned from conventional broadcasting for being too political, it’s done the rounds on social media and has certainly kicked up quite the fuss and has sparked the conversation about palm oil and the horrors associated with it. 

In 2018, more than ever, consumers are doing their bit to lessen their impact on the environment. Be it through limiting single-use plastics, eating locally and seasonally or even demanding transparency throughout the food production process, it’s no longer an excuse to dig your head in the sand when it comes to your food and its effect on the environment. 

Palm oil has long been the centre of controversy, and in theory, people seem to understand that it’s bad but in practice, they don’t truly know how to make a difference. These are just some of the easy ways you can stop supporting the production of unethical palm oil.

What is palm oil and why is it so bad?

Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. While originally found in Western Africa, the oil palm can thrive in any tropical climate. It’s a desirable food product because it’s fast-growing and cheap. According to WWF, it’s estimated that the equivalent of 300 football fields is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil plantations. And these forests are home to endangered species, as well as biodiverse plants and trees, which are the victims of such expansive deforestation. Along with orangutans (of which there are expected to less than 80 000 left in the world), Sumatran elephants and rhinos, and tigers have all been affected in the process of clearing.

green forest

So how do I know what contains palm oil and what doesn’t?

This is where things get a little shady. It would solve many problems if you could just pick up a grocery item, read the back label and put it down simply because it states outright that it includes palm oil. Trouble is, there are nearly 200 different legal names for palm oil (which you can read here.) Best thing is to familiarise yourself with some of the common terms like glyceryl, palmitate and elaeis guineensis.

OK, and where should I be looking for the sneaky palm oil?

By now, you should know that limiting your intake of processed food is generally a good idea owing to the number of preservatives, added salt and sugar. But, another reason is that this is mostly where conventional palm oil is used. These are the most common products where you’re likely to find palm oil –

Chocolate: Palm oil is used in the production of processed chocolate because it gives it that glossy shine, as helps stabilise it at warmer temperatures. Make the switch by supporting small, independent chocolate makers who use organic ingredients.

Bread: Conventional bread is manufactured with palm oil because it’s stable at room temperature, and is cheap and easy to bake with. Pick up a fresh loaf at a bakery instead, slice it and pop it in your freezer for a more wholesome and ethical alternative.

Ready made meals: as with most foods, oil is used to prevent sticking or in the cooked base to improve creaminess or texture. Palm oil is just a cheaper oil to use than sunflower or olive oil. Reading the ingredients in most ready meals is a terrifying science lesson, so you should want to skip them for that alone. If not, don’t buy simply because it promotes the use of palm oil.

Pre-made cakes, cookies or ice cream: as with the ready meals, palm oil is used here as a stable texture-improver. Make your own sweet treats, or pick them up fresh from a local bakery. 

ice cream cone

Margarine: It’s no secret that margarine has fallen out of fashion in a big way in the past couple of years, and for a whole host of reasons. If you’re still purchasing margarine (or something that uses margarine), know that palm oil is used to make it because of the stabilising qualities. Stick to butter instead, not only is it better for you and the environment, it tastes nicer, too.

Crisps and nuts: Sorry to say it, but those bulk packs of nuts and chips are well-priced for a reason – palm oil. It is possible to find palm oil-free snacks, however, just make sure you’re reading the ingredients.

Let us know what you think of the palm oil controversy in the comments section below!

Read more on: palm oil  |  food news

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