What is Palm Oil

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The palm fruit yields both palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit and is an edible oil used in food. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit and is used in the manufacture of cosmetics.

There are two main species of oil palm tree; Elaeis guineensis, native to West Africa and Elaeis oleifera, native to Central and South America. Both species grow in tropical regions including Colombia in South America, New Guinea in the Pacific, Ghana in Africa and Indonesia and Malaysia in Southeast Asiia.

Palm oil plantations are the main driver for deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. These two regions account for 85 percent of global production of palm oil.

What is The Orangutan Project's position on palm oil and the RSPO?

The RSPO, in part, calls palm oil sustainable if produced from land cleared before 2005. However this still could of been orangutan habitat, killing orangutans. TOP therefore has a firmer approach and will not support palm oil that comes from the islands of Borneo or Sumatra. We acknowledge that palm oil plantations set up on any land will have likely displaced natural habitat, however this is true of all permanent forms of agriculture. Please read more on our position regarding palm oil and the RSPO here

What is the Threat to Orangutans?

Palm oil is often cultivated in an unsustainable way, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia. The unsustainable establishment of mass palm oil plantations is harming the environment, indigenous communities and wildlife.

Environmental Impacts

The United Nations Environment Programme has announced that palm oil plantations are now the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia. An area of forest equal to 300 soccer fields is being destroyed every hour.

The burning of forests to clear land for palm oil plantations is a major cause of air pollution in Southeast Asia. It releases CO2 into the atmosphere which contributes to global warming. Research shows that 20% of all global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels come from rainforest destruction.

Threatening Endangered Species

Deforestation for the establishment of palm oil plantations is responsible for habitat loss for threatened and endangered species. Priority species impacted by forest clearing are the Asian elephant, tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and the orangutan. The Asian elephant and Bornean orangutan are endangered and the tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran orangutan are Critically Endangered.

Palm Oil Plantations Endangering Orangutans

During the past decade the orangutan population has decreased by approximately 50 percent in the wild. This is primarily due to human activities including rainforest destruction for palm oil plantations. At present, 80 percent of orangutan habitat has been altered or lost.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUNC) has classified the Bornean orangutan as Endangered with approximately 55,000 left with 5,000 killed a year. The Sumatran orangutan is Critically Endangered with approximately 6,300 left and 1,000 being killed a year.

What Products Contain Palm Oil?

Palm oil is the second most widely produced edible oil. Each year, Australia imports approximately 130,000 tons of palm oil.

Palm oil and its derivatives are found in around 50 percent of all packaged foods on Australian shelves. It has a longer shelf life than other vegetable oils making it more appealing for food production. Palm oil is found in many food products including biscuits, chips, crackers and batters. It is also found in toothpaste, soap, shampoo and cosmetics.

In recent years palm oil based biodiesel has entered the European market. While biofuel has been promoted as an effective means of reducing emissions, establishing palm oil plantations increases greenhouse emissions. Although Australia does not currently offer palm oil based biodiesel, if crude oil prices continue to rise the demand for biofuels may increase.

Names for Palm Oil

Palm oil kernel
“Palmitate” or “Palmate”
Elaeis gunieensis
Hydrated Palm Gylcerides Hexadecanoic
Palmitic Acid

Likely to be Palm Oil

Vegetable oil (if product contains saturated fats, it's most likely palm oil!!)
Anything containing “stearate, stearyl”
Anything containing the words “cetyl, cetearyl”
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS)
Sodium Laureth Sulphate
Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate
(SDS or NaDS) Sodium
Calcium Stearoyl Lactylate Steareth -2
Steareth -20 Emulsifier 422, 430-36, 465-67, 470-8, 481-483 

Palm Oil Free List
We are currently updating this list, please check back soon.

How You Can Help

  • You can speak on behalf of wild animals such as orangutans and Sumatran tigers who are losing their habitat at an unprecedented rate due to the unsustainable production of palm oil.
  • The best action you can take right now is to write letters to keep the pressure on government and manufacturers.
  • Write to your local politicians. Ask them what they are doing to help achieve mandatory labelling of Palm Oil.
  • Write to the manufacturers of your favourite foods. Find out if they are using palm oil and, if so, whether it comes from plantations in Borneo or Sumatra.
  • As a consumer, you really can make a difference just by making your voice heard.

Palm Oil Free Easter Guide