shopping trolley

The problem of palm oil has been in and out of the news limelight for a number of years.

Part of the world’s struggle against issues like the environment and greener living is that we tend to view climate change matters as ‘trends’ — one month, we are all about reusable bottles and straws, the next, we’re rallying behind carbon emissions. Ideally, the issue needs to be treated as a whole and not with past issues raised being left by the wayside.

Following from this, garden bark supplier Compost Direct returns to the issue of palm oil to find out if improvements have been made on UK shelves.

Why palm oil is used

Palm oil is produced, rather obviously perhaps, by palm oil trees. The oil these trees produces is a fantastic product: it’s a healthier alternative to many other oils, aids with lathering in soaps, and holds colours in cosmetic items well while helping with a smooth application. It can enhance the texture of doughs, conditions hair, free from trans fats, makes chocolate look shiny, gives baked goods a creamy taste, removes dirt and oil, and relatively inexpensive.

Though it is high in saturated fats, it’s easy to see why it is used in so many products. Sadly, as with most things, human demand is so much higher than the planet can naturally produce and replenish.

Why this useful product is so harmful

The problem doesn’t lie in the palm oil as a product itself. The problem is mainly with the method of procurement, which can be highly destructive.

The trees’ fruits are collected for the oil. These trees live for around 30 years, but they grow to considerable heights. If the trees become too tall, the fruit is more difficult to collect. So, the trees are cut down to make room for more trees.

Naturally, demand is high for this oil. It’s far higher than the number of palm oil trees can supply. According to the Guardian, India, China, and Indonesia’s demand for palm oil alone totals 40% of global palm oil consumptions. To meet this lucrative consumer demand, rainforests are cut down to plant the more profitable palm oil trees in their place. These rainforests are home to so many animals and delicate ecosystems. Essentially, we are replacing trees that benefit animals for trees that benefit humans. The impact has been devasting for orangutans in particular, with an estimated 100,000 deaths of the primate caused by deforestation over the last 16 years. On top of that, the burning of these rainforests is said to have contributed to the high levels of pollution witnessed in parts of Asia.

Products that have palm oil in

From margarines to cleaning products, palm oil is used in a whole host of items. It is also difficult to avoid products with palm oil in, as many products do not explicitly state their palm oil content — the ingredient has so many different names and derivatives that can be listed instead as a means to cloak its use. Some products will, however, list that they are “RSPO”, which means their palm oils have come from certified sustainable palm oil sources as certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oils. However, there has been some criticism of the RSPO due to their lack of clarity regarding clearing rainforests to grow more palm oil trees.

A small study: example shopping list

Our mini-study methodology

Let’s head to the UK supermarket shelves. We’re putting together a small example shopping list from Which’s top-rated online supermarket of 2018, Iceland. We’ve selected two ‘bestseller’ products from each of Iceland’s ‘popular categories’: Frozen, Fresh, Food Cupboard, Household, Drinks, and Bakery*.

The next step was to look for palm oil in the selected products. Initially, we checked the ingredients list provided for each product (either on Iceland’s website or on the brand’s website) for any clear indication of palm oil. We included the terms ‘palm fat’, ‘vegetable oil (palm)’ and obvious variants. We then checked through the ingredients lists and compared it to the 426 alternative palm oil names listed by Palm Oil Investigations. In these instances, upon one alternative name being spotted in the ingredients list of a product, we marked the product as potentially containing palm oil, as these ingredients could come from other sources.

ProductPalm oil clearly listed in ingredients? Palm oil referred to by a different name in ingredient?Result
Frozen: Iceland 60 Crispy Chicken DippersNoNoContains no palm oil**
Frozen: Chicago Town 2 Deep Dish Pepperoni PizzasNoNoContains no palm oil**
Chilled: Utterly Butterly SpreadYesNoContains palm oil**
Chilled: Rustlers Flame Grilled Cheese BurgerNoNoContains no palm oil**
Food Cupboard: Kinder Bueno Milk and HazelnutYesNoContains palm oil**
Food Cupboard: Pot Noodle Chicken & MushroomYesNoContains palm oil**
Household: Peril Non Bio Washing LiquidNoContains Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Sodium Lauryl SulfateIngredients potentially derived from palm
Household: Surf Tropical Lily Washing PowderNoNoContains no palm oil**
Drinks: Galaxy Instant Hot ChocolateYesContains palm fatContains palm oil**
Drinks: Pepsi MaxNoNoContains no palm oil**
Bakery: Warburtons Toastie Thick Sliced Soft White BreadYesContains sustainable palm oilContains palm oil**
Bakery: Iceland Thick Tiger Bloomer BreadNoNoContains no palm oil**


Iceland doesn’t stock cosmetics, so we took a virtual trip to Superdrug instead. Again, we used the ingredients lists available on the product page of Superdrug or consulted the brand’s own page if needed.

ProductPalm oil clearly listed in ingredients? Palm oil referred to by a different name in ingredient?Result
Face: NYX Professional Makeup Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Foundation – Light IvoryNoContains Caprylyl GlycolIngredients potentially derived from palm
Face: NYX Professional Makeup Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Concealer – Neutral BuffNoContains EthylhexylglycerinIngredients potentially derived from palm
Lip: Revolution Rose Gold Lipstick ChauffeurNoContains Ethylhexyl PalmitateContains palm oil**
Lip: Nyx Professional Makeup Candy Stick Lip – Birthday SprinklesNoContains GlycerinIngredients potentially derived from palm
Eyes: MUA Eyeshadow Palette – ElysiumNoNoContains no palm oil**
Eyes: Max Factor Rise & Shine Mascara BlackNoContains glycerolIngredients potentially derived from palm
Washing & Bathing: Palmolive Gourmet Vanilla Pleasure Shower Gel CreamNoContains Cocamidopropyl BetaineIngredients potentially derived from palm
Washing & Bathing: Imperial Leather Cosmic Unicorn Shower GelNoContains Sodium Laureth SulfateIngredients potentially derived from palm
Shampoo: TRESemme Moisture Rich Luxurious Moisture ShampooNoContains Sodium Laureth SulfateIngredients potentially derived from palm
Shampoo: Herbal Essences Bio: Renew Shampoo Argan Oil of MoroccoNoContains Sodium Laureth SulfateIngredients potentially derived from palm

*As of 4th March 2019

**According to ingredient list research — potentially used under another name.

Results from our study

Our little shopping list had 22 items on. Seven items did not appear to contain any form of palm oil. 15 items in total either contained or potentially contained palm oil-based ingredients. That’s a whopping 68% of our example shopping list that could rely on palm oil.

Palm oil is still very much on our shop shelves and therefore, the demand is still high and damaging the environment as a result. Even if you’re seeking to live a greener, healthier life, it’s easy to get caught out by the numerous different names for palm oil as an ingredient. In order to truly help with the planet’s health, we must remember to be vigilant across all areas of climate change contributors, from plastic in the sea to deforestation, and not just whatever the current environmental trend is today. It’s an ongoing change we all need to be a part of in order to see success.