Palm oil is widely used in biofuels, candles, cosmetics, soaps, shower gels and shampoos. As a cooking ingredient it is a component of breads, chocolate, cookies, pizza, ice cream, and margarine, to name just a few. Palm oil is found in around half of all packaged goods. Palm oil is the world’s most versatile vegetable oil.
It has many amazing properties such as having no trans-fats (which are unhealthy), it remains stable at high temperatures, has a long shelf-life, and a unique texture that other oils do not have.
Palm oil is primarily produced in Indonesia and Malaysia (85%), but is primarily consumed in China, India, the EU, and the United States. Worldwide production of palm oil has been climbing steadily for five decades. Between 1995 and 2015, annual production quadrupled, from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes. By 2050, production is expected to quadruple again, reaching 240m tonnes
However, to deliver some bad news, oil palm agriculture is the main driver of tropical deforestation, as well as slash and burn practices which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and human rights abuses during production.
So let’s just stop using palm oil, right?
Two aspects make this difficult:
- Global vegetable oil use has been rising for decades and the food and fuel industry will not easy find an alternative for such a cheap and unique oil
- Palm oil produces more oil per field area than any other type of vegetable oil
So the obvious solution to use another crop is not such an easy answer - if an alternative crop to palm oil is used, it will take up much more land, destroying even more rain forest!
While this issue is difficult to solve, coconut trees are the best alternative. While oil palms do not grow well together with other trees, and need peatland to be drained for the palms to grow on (which releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere), coconut trees on the other hand can grow in almost any soil, and can be grown together with other plants at their base. Coconut plantations, which are mostly family-run, are mixed with crops like banana, cacao, and coffee, and farmers then often integrate them with the surrounding tropical landscapes.
The Alternative - Coconut Trees
Coconut is mostly grown in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India, which makes up around 71% of production. The rest takes place in many different warm countries around the world. Due to coconut’s ability to grow almost anywhere, and alongside other plants, there is a big opportunity for other countries to increase their production on existing agricultural land. To provide vegetable oil for the world’s ever increasing need, coconut production has a lot of potential to scale up, which would be a lot more preferable than further rainforest deforestation for more palm oil trees.
Another advantage of coconut production is that the plant can be used in a wide variety of ways, such as using the coconut flesh, milk, and the husk for its strong fibres. Its wood is also a lot easier to work with than palm oil wood.
For soapmaking, coconut oil is an amazing ingredient because it cleanses very efficiently while producing a creamy lather. While I would always use coconut oil over palm oil to make soap due to the sustainability, I do try to use as little as possible, as it is not regional. I excluded coconut oil from my soaps for dry and sensitive skin, but it was a must, although only the fourth ingredient, when creating my soaps that need more cleansing, for oily and combination skin. I feel that this reaches a good compromise between the need to cleanse, sustainability, and regionality.
In Everyday Life
If you would like to reduce your palm oil consumption in daily life, try to spot Palm oil in an ingredients list look for the following names:
Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Palmitic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palm Stearine, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Hydrate Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmidite, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Suphate.