You’ve probably heard the horror stories about palm oil: orphaned orangutans, rainforests destruction, smoldering fires that pollute the air, displaced communities and exploitation of workers.
Thankfully, that’s not all there is to the tale.
As the demand for palm oil has grown over the past several decades—mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which now produce roughly 85% of palm oil worldwide—the industry evolved in a way that favored large corporations, huge plantations and a focus on profit, irrespective of ecological, cultural or social impacts.
There’s another, happier story that has yet to be told. One where farmers are empowered and communities thrive. One where animals and people are well. One where the land flourishes with diversity. Let’s start here …
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the African oil palm, Elaesis Guineensis,one of the two main fruit-bearing tropical palm species (the other being Cocos Nucifera, which produces coconuts). Oil palms begin producing fruit once they’re 3-4 years old, yet will continue to grow and produce year-round for up to forty years. As the oil palm grows, it sends out a new set of leaves from the tip of the trunk, which then forms flowers that turn into fruit clusters (in industry terms, these are called fresh fruit bunches, or FFB).
What is Palm Oil Used For?
The oil palm plant is incredibly versatile. The oil from the kernel is pressed separately from the the pulp, and has a higher saturated fat content. That, along with its high lauric acid content, makes palm kernel oil perfect for soaps, household cleaning products, personal care products and cosmetics. When the pulp of the fruit is pressed, the result is unrefined red palm oil, which is high in antioxidants and beta-Carotenes, and has a mid-range smoke point and nutty taste that make it a terrific cooking oil for baking, sautéing and medium heat frying.
This unrefined red palm oil can then be refined, bleached and deodorized (referred to as RBD) to remove the color and flavor, leaving a more neutral oil.
Palm Done Right extends to this processing step too.
When oil is refined at too high of a temperature, it can create toxic 3-monochloropropanediol fatty acid esters (called 3-MCPD). But when palm oil is carefully refined at lower temperatures using gentler methods, 3-MCPD levels are significantly lower (and well below risk).
From this refined state, most palm oil is separated by heating followed by rapid cooling which separates the oil into its solid and liquid forms (a process called fractioning, because it’s ‘dividing’ the oil into two states).
The liquid form of palm oil is called palm olein, and is a terrific frying oil due to its high smoke point and stability.
The solid form is called palm stearin and is a great, non-hydrogenated, vegetarian option for spreads and confections, when it’s blended in with nut butters it prevents separation of the fats.
Palm Oil is Everywhere
Given how versatile palm oil is, it’s no wonder it’s widely used across a variety of industries. If you looked through the packaged goods in your house—in your pantry, in your bathroom cabinet, in your laundry room—you’d likely find palm oil in over half of them.
Palm oil is found in roughly half of the consumer products found in an average American home.
You may think, why not just stop using so much palm? Valid question. But there are good reasons palm is so popular, and good reasons for choosing palm over other oils.
At room temperature, palm oil naturally has the texture and plasticity of hydrogenated corn or soy oils without the hydrogenation that forms harmful trans.
It’s resistant to oxidation and rancidity, and can extend the shelf life of other ingredients in a product.
It can take high heat without oxidizing.
It doesn’t have the greasy mouthfeel that other vegetable oils do.
It blends well with other vegetable oils.
It provides an alternative to butter for vegans and vegetarians.
Red palm oil contains high concentrations of antioxidants, including carotenoids and tocotrienol compounds of the Vitamin E complex.
It can improve the functionality of natural soaps and other cleaning products.
It’s a sustainable alternative to petroleum ingredients in cosmetics.
It’s a great emollient in lotions and balms.
When done right, it’s also the highest yielding vegetable oil on the planet, producing 5-10 times more oil per acre compared to other commodity oils like soybean or Canola.
Oil palms produce more oil per hectare than any other oil source on the planet.
So while palm oil is an inherently sustainable, nutrient-dense oil, the way in which most palm oil is being produced has wreaked havoc on habitats, leading to the demise of critically-endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, the Asian rhinoceros and the Sumatran Orangutan.
The large-scale destruction of native habitats for humans, animals and plants; the burning of carbon-rich soils; and unnatural growing practices focused on synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides and pesticides has caused massive release of greenhouse gasses (GHG), contributing to global warming. Rampant, smoldering fires have also exposed entire regions to high levels of smoke and haze.
The first step toward a solution started with RSPO, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO was founded in 2004 in response to the rampant destruction by palm done wrong. Stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry—from producers to consumer goods manufacturers to non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—came together to develop a set of standards that they believed would set the global supply chain of palm oil on the path to sustainability.
RSPO offers four levels of certification with varying degrees of traceability.
The values driving Palm Done Right go above and beyond the highest certifications.
Of these, only the Identity Preserved level is fully traceable, which means full accountability at each step of the process. Within the past decade, though, a handful of companies have chosen to go beyond RSPO Identity Preserved to create truly sustainable, organic, fair trade palm oil traceable throughout the supply chain.
Their goal: to ensure wellbeing of farmers, environment, communities and consumers.
Natural Habitats—one of the companies who has gone beyond the certifications—thought the time was right to spearhead a campaign to get the word out about the positive impacts of palm when it’s grown the right way.
Palm Done Right isn’t just a philosophy, it’s a way of doing business. That means standards and guidelines need to be in place to make sure palm is always done right … not just sometimes.
That’s where third-party certifications come in. The USDA’s and the European Union’s Organic certification programs, the Fair For Life fair trade standard*, and Rainforest Alliance certification provide clear guidelines for farmers and producers to follow. They involve annual, independent—and stringent—audits to hold all accountable, so that when you as the consumer see these labels, you know a company is walking the talk.
There is a huge difference between palm done wrong and Palm Done Right—a big one—and you can be a part of the change.
*Extranatu in Ecuador, owned by Natural Habitats, is a Fair For Life certified palm oil operation. Its supplying oil palm growers are working according to the Fair For Life standard.
Palm Done Right Farmers grow oil palms according to organic practices, either by reconditioning degraded land—often from old growth forest that had been clear cut and converted into pasture or crop lands—or by transitioning existing, conventional palm farms to organic.
Oil palm trees produce year round, with a life span of up to 40 years.
Oil palms are unique plants. They produce palm fruits for up to 40 years, which makes them less of a burden on the soil than annual crops that are replanted year after year, and they bear fruit year round, which means a steady source of income for small farmers. Palm Done Right farmers nurture the soil with organic methods like leguminous cover crops (which fix nitrogen in the soil naturally), mulching and application of compost, which also increases palm fruit yields.
Fresh fruit bunches ripen in 20 weeks, with the amount of oil from the yield increasing by 200 fold in the last week, meaning farmers need to monitor daily for ripe fruit. When the fruit is ripe, workers harvest by hand either by using a scythe fit on a long pole or by shimmying up the tree and using a machete to cut down the bunches.
Palm Done Right is harvested by hand using traditional methods.
Once the bunches are harvested, the farmers cart them to the mill (or the pick up point for the mill), often using donkeys, horses or oxen.
Palm Done Right favors animal transport where possible to cut down on fossil fuels.
When the fresh fruit bunches reach the mill, they are transferred to a large container with pressurized steam which deactivates the enzyme that causes the oil to go rancid, and loosens the fruit from the bunch.
Next, the bunches go into a large drum tumbler. The fruit falls through openings in the container, and the empty bunches are recycled as compost.
The fruit then goes into a low-speed steam “digester” press that loosens the oil from the pulp, and then into a hydraulic press. At that point, the liquid is a mixture of oil, water, fiber and kernels.
That mixture goes onto a vibrating screen to separate out the solids. Of the solids, kernels are gathered for a separate pressing, and the fiber is recycled as fuel for the steamers.
The liquid goes to a clarifying tank that uses centrifugal force to separate water from oil.
One of the negative side effects of palm processing is that the wastewater from the purification step—because it’s highly concentrated organic matter—can contaminate water sources.
Part of Palm Done Right is making sure that doesn’t happen, by lining holding pools, or putting the wastewater through a “biodigester” that separates water—which is then safe to return to rivers or use as irrigation—and compostable organic matter.
Lined, aerated pools help turn wastewater into water suitable for irrigation or streams.
From there, the oil is transported to a refinery for further processing, depending on needs of the end product.