shopping trolley in a supermarket aisle

Over 50 per cent of your shopping list could contain palm oil

Palm oil has been a point of contention for a number of years now. But one of the problems facing the worldwide battle against climate change and pollution is a tendency to offer only one aspect of the problem our undivided attention at any one time — one minute, we’re rallying behind the evils of car fumes, the next, orangutans losing their habitat to deforestation. Then we’re all about ditching single-use plastics to save the ocean, then we’re hitting the vegan lifestyle to avoid water and land consumption levels needed for farming livestock.

Trends have been great for raising awareness of environmental issues and getting people informed. But sometimes, ‘past’ concerns fall by the wayside of a trend’s rapid movement and changing. While it’s important to learn about new issues, it’s equally important to maintain an interest in previously raised issues. This is particularly necessary with the ongoing issue of palm oil. Garden mulches supplier, Compost Direct, investigates from the ground up.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a form of vegetable oil that comes from 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.

It’s easy to see why we use it so much, despite it being a high source of saturated fats. Sadly, as with most things, human demand is so much higher than the planet can naturally produce and replenish.

Why does it have such a bad reputation?

The issue isn’t with the palm oil itself. The problem is mainly with the method of procurement, which can be highly destructive.

In order to harvest palm oil, the fruits are collected from the tree. 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.

Plus, as mentioned, the demand for palm oil across the world is incredibly high — 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.

What is palm oil used in?

Palm oil is used in a host of products, from food to cosmetics, to cleaning products and margarine. It is also difficult to avoid products with palm oil in, as many products do not explicitly state their palm oilcontent — 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.

Study: a small shopping list

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

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.


As Iceland don’t sell cosmetics, we headed to Superdrug to look at their best sellers. Again, we used the ingredients lists available on the product page of Superdrug or consulted the brand’s own page if needed.

The results

Our small online grocery and cosmetics shopping list contained 22 items in total. 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.

It’s clear that palm oil is still highly prevalent on our shopping shelves, both online and offline. 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.

*This is a collaborative post*

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