The tips and tricks of avoiding Palm Oil

The first battle in the fight against unsustainable Palm Oil will be spear-headed today (23rd June 2011) in the Australian senate. The Truth in Labelling Act was first introduced by Nick Xenophon back in November 2009 and is calling for the mandatory labelling of Palm Oil in all food products on Australian shelves. Xenophons bill has not only backed what environmental groups have been saying for years but is also supported by many health organisations (including the Heart Foundation). Xenophon has recognised the consumers right to know what they are buying and the effects that these products have on their health, and the planets!

I discussed in detail the effects of palm oil production and consumption in my previous article but in summary, the production of Palm oil is leading to mass clearing of important south-east Asian rainforests (homes and habitats), astronomical carbon emissions and after all that is an unhealthy oil due to its extremely high level of saturated fat. I think it is safe to say that those are three damn ugly side-effects for a product that is a) easily produced sustainably and b) easily replaced if not.

A selection of products containing Palm Oil from

Why does labelling of Palm Oil need to be mandatory?

As Australian consumers we trust the fact that when we look at the ingredients list that what we see is what we get – but this is currently not the case. According to the FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) the only edible oils that need to be declared are soybean, sesame and peanut oil (due to allergies) but it is perfectly acceptable to label all other plant based oils (including palm) simply as ‘vegetable oil’. In Senator Xenophon introduction of the bill he commented on the ridiculousness; that at even the most basic level this is misleading given that palm oil is made from fruit! But beyond that minor technicality we have a right to know exactly what we are consuming and consuming it we are, with the average Australian ingesting or applying 10 kilograms of it every year! In my previous article I focused predominantly on the environmental impacts of palm oil which, in my opinion, is reason enough to make labelling mandatory. So instead I have decided I will focus on the health implications.

Our government spends millions of dollars a year advertising ‘health’. In terms or heart disease, cancer and obesity we are advised to reduce our intake of saturated fats. Saturated fats are commonly associated with animal fats such as those found in meats, butters and cheeses rather than vegetable oils, like Canola and Sunflower. So, on this belief, if a consumer picked up a product labeled as Vegetable Oil it would be perfectly logical for them to believe that it was low in saturated fat. However the food source that contains the highest level of saturated fats of any (up to a whopping 93%) are hydrogenated oils – Palm and Coconut Oil. As consumers how can we make responsible decisions when the credible information we are basing them on is fraudulent? So what do you need to know to avoid palm oil in your products?

How to decode the labels?

In food…

Here at the Eco Empire we must sound like stuck records but here it is again – read the label! Repetitive? Yes. But the fact of the matter is, making a habit of reading your labels is one of the biggest steps to take if you want to live a more ethical existence. In this case the first hurdle is to identify whether Palm Oil is even being using in the product. This is not as cut and dry as identifying say, nuts, gluten or dairy. It seems that companies are only willing to be transparent when there is risk of allergies in their buyers. An easy example of labeled palm oil will list it as Palm Oil or Palmolein. However with the more vague products however, you will have to dig deeper. While it is perfectly legal to deceivingly bundle palm in with vegetable oil the amount of saturated fat in a product must, by law, be declared. So if a product lists a vegetable oil look straight to the saturated fat level for the vital clue. As I mentioned earlier Palm and Coconut oils are the only vegetable oils high in saturated fat so If the levels are high it is very likely these oils have been used. While it’s not bulletproof method it definitely helps to identifying a hidden ingredient! Once you have established the presence of the oil look for the RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) logo. If it is missing it is highly likely that the palm oil was produced unsustainably. But if you are not satisfied coming to this conclusion, ring the customer feedback line and ask them is it is RSPO certified.It if is not explain the reasons that you will be taking your hard earned cash elsewhere. Those customer lines are set up to learn customer expectations and while they may not respond to heart disease and orangutan extinction they’ll listen if you mention money!

In cosmetics…

Strangely enough, the requirements for labelling palm oil in the cosmetics industry are far stricter than those that apply to our food industry. In cosmetics, palm oil must be listed as an ingredient without exception. However, as Juliet asked Romeo, what’s in a name? Here is a list of all the names used for Palm Oil (or chemicals containing it);

  • Sodium Laureth Sulphate

    Image by Emily Ehlers
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphates
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Glyceryl Stearate
  • Stearic Acid
  • Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
  • Palmate
  • Palm Oil Kernal
  • Palmitate
  • Steareth -2
  • Steareth -20
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate
  • Hydrated palm glycerides
  • Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye
  • Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate
  • Anything with palmitate at the end

It is a hell of a lot to remember. Zoos Victoria have been major drivers in enforcing correct labelling and have this cute little print out card that you can keep in your wallet to pull out before you buy your shampoos and conditioners. A solution that I have found very effective is buying certified organic shampoos and conditioners. Still check the label, but products like Sukin list the scientific name for each ingredient and in brackets next to it the common name i.e. Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil

Know your companies and products

While it sounds like it is a massive undertaking to eliminate palm oil for your shopping trolley it gets easier every week. You will start to recognise the brands and products that do use them and the companies you want to support because they don’t. Since I pledged to 3things that I would eliminate palm oil from my home I have noticed a very welcome side-effect: I am no longer buying unhealthy packaged foods! It has forced me to be a lot more creative with my decisions which often leads to healthier options. Before when friends came over I would dish out a bowl of greasy potato chips, but since the switch they have been welcomed into my home by the smell of toasting flat breads or healthy crudites. It has been a really positive change in my home.

Make the change

The Truth in Food Labelling Act (if passed) is definitely an exciting step in the right direction but it is not the solution. The power still lies with you, the consumer, to make ethical decisions and ultimately support the companies that are considering the triple bottom line and are producing responsibly. It upset me when I found out Oreos (one of the few vegan pleasures of the old world) had palm oil in. But now I am not chewing down a heap of saturated fats, trans fats, refined sugars and all the environmental costs associated with packaging and transport. Instead I now make delicious vegan chocolate biscuits with my husband and the best bit is we see exactly what goes into them.

Looking to the future

I hope this has provided you a few solutions on how to cut down or eliminate palm oil from your life. I also hope that as I type this over in Canberra a fantastic bill presented by an admirable man is being passed through to the House of Representatives, so that shopping ethically can be that little bit easier for us all. Once consumers start reacting to unsustainable palm oil in their products, companies will be forced to meet consumer demand. As I consumer I demand that some of the most diverse rainforest on our planet is preserved, I demand that we stop killing 50 orangutans every week, I demand that we allow local people the right to their land and I demand that we stop depriving future generations of some of our worlds greatest wonders.


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