The Problem with Palm Oil

Attention all readers, I have a small task for you. Go into your kitchen and grab the nearest manufactured food […]

Attention all readers, I have a small task for you. Go into your kitchen and grab the nearest manufactured food item then take a look at the nutrition label. Then scan this label and see if it lists “Palm Oil” as one of its ingredients…  but be careful, palm oil is a master of disguise. It goes by dozens of different names such as but not limited to:


PKO (palm kernel oil), 

PHPKO (partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil), 

OPKO (Organic palm kernel oil), 



Ethyl Palmitate, 

Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS), 

Elaeis Guineensis, 

Glyceryl Stearate, 


Stearic Acid,


Hydrated Palm Glycerides,


Vegetable Oil 


Quick tip: if the saturated fat content of a product is over 50 percent then that product is likely to contain palm oil. 


Did you see any of the above items on your label? If you did, you are not alone because 50% of all manufactured food products will include some derivative of palm oil (there are close to 200 different palm oil derivatives at this point in time). Besides food, palm oil can also be found in certain cosmetics, cleaning products, and even biodiesel fuel. As a matter of fact, palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet; each year we consume over 500 million tonnes of it. In 2020, the palm oil market reached a value of 54.79 billion USD and scientists estimate it will reach 105.97 USD by 2026.


Derived from the fruit of oil palm plants, palm oil is a type of vegetable oil. 


You may be wondering: Why palm oil? 


The fact of the matter is that oil palm is an extremely efficient, high-yield crop; It uses less than half the land required to cultivate other vegetable oil plants. Furthermore, the oil itself is cheap to produce and very versatile. Put these factors together and you’ve got the perfect combination for world domination. 


So what’s the big deal? Why should we care?


Here, take a quick look at this map:

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization


Oil palm grows best in warm, tropical climates… 


Warm tropical climates = rainforests.


Unfortunately, there is not enough naturally growing oil palm to support the ever-expanding industry, and because of the high demand, about 300 football fields worth of rainforest are cut down every hour and replaced with oil palm plantations. In Indonesia alone, the palm oil market has led to the loss of over 76 million acres of forest. This is very bad news for biodiversity. 


According to the World Wildlife Fund,


“Large-scale conversion of tropical forests to oil palm plantations has a devastating impact on a huge number of plant and animal species. Oil palm production also leads to an increase in human-wildlife conflict as populations of large animals are squeezed into increasingly isolated fragments of natural habitat. The habitats destroyed frequently contain rare and endangered species or serve as wildlife corridors between areas of genetic diversity. Even national parks have been severely impacted.”



Tigers in Trouble

Brian Mckay


 Significantly impacted by the palm oil industry, the Sumatran tiger has seen a major change in life. Between 2009 and 2011, the farming of palm oil was responsible for the loss of 15 percent of the tigers’ habitat. That’s 15 percent in just two years. Overall, 90 percent of the Sumatran tiger’s habitat has been lost to oil palm plantations. Along with the tiger, orangutans, clouded leopards, Sumatran rhinos, Sumatran elephants, Bornean pygmy elephants are all negatively impacted by habitat loss and fragmentation resulting from the farming of oil palm. 


Environmental impacts of palm oil

  • Deforestation 
  • Habitat degradation
  • Fragmentation of habitat
  • Habitat loss
  • Decline in biodiversity
  • Air pollution and soil erosion 
  • Climate change 


Hey, now after all that, don’t feel too guilty. You just didn’t know. 


But now you do and that’s a huge step in the right direction!


One of the largest barriers to change is a lack of awareness. Now that you know the truth about palm oil, you have the ability to make a difference. 


Here are a few ways you can actively help.


How You Can Make a Difference

  1. Be an educated consumer; certainly, avoid purchasing products that contain palm oil and its numerous derivatives.
  2. Support organizations such as Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network that are working to conserve our rainforests.
  3. Above all, Speak up and spread awareness.


Here at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, we talk a lot about exotic cats in captivity. We often tell visitors that there are more tigers in fake zoos and backyards than there are left in the wild. We’d really like to reverse those numbers and therefore see thousands of tigers in their natural habitats and none in captivity. 


As a result of working together, maybe we can save the Sumatran tiger and all the other species inhabiting rainforests across the world. 


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