How the world got hooked on palm oil

Non-fictional story

Long ago, in a land far, far away, a magical fruit grew. This fruit could be squeezed to make a special kind of oil that makes cookies healthier, soaps more foamy, and chips more crunchy. The oil could even make the lipstick smoother and keep the ice cream from melting. Because of these wonderful qualities, people from all over the world came to this fruit and made a lot of oil out of it. In places where fruits grew, people burned the forest to plant more trees with this fruit, creating a lot of smoke and chasing all the forest creatures out of their homes. The burning forests gave off a gas that warmed the air. It only stopped some people, but not all. The fruit was too good.

Unfortunately, this is a true story. The fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), which grows in tropical climates, contains the most versatile vegetable oil in the world. It may not deteriorate when frying and mixes well with other oils. Its low production costs make it cheaper than cottonseed or sunflower oil. It provides foam in almost every shampoo, liquid soap or detergent. Cosmetics manufacturers prefer it to animal fat for ease of use and low price. It is increasingly being used as a cheap feedstock for biofuels, especially in the European Union. It acts as a natural preservative in processed foods and actually raises the melting point of ice cream. The trunks and leaves of the oil palm tree can be used in everything from plywood to the composite body of the National Car of Malaysia.

World palm oil production has been steadily growing for five decades. From 1995 to 2015, annual production quadrupled from 15,2 million tons to 62,6 million tons. It is expected to quadruple again by 2050 to reach 240 million tons. The volume of palm oil production is astonishing: plantations for its production account for 10% of the world’s permanent arable land. Today, 3 billion people in 150 countries use products containing palm oil. Globally, each of us consumes an average of 8 kg of palm oil per year.

Of these, 85% are in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the global demand for palm oil has boosted incomes, especially in rural areas, but at the cost of massive environmental destruction and often associated violations of labor and human rights. The main source of greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia, a country of 261 million people, are fires aimed at clearing forests and creating new palm plantations. The financial incentive to produce more palm oil is warming the planet, while destroying the only habitat for Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos and orangutans, pushing them towards extinction.

However, consumers are often unaware that they are even using this product. Palm oil research lists over 200 common ingredients in food and home and personal care products that contain palm oil, only about 10% of which include the word “palm”.

How did it enter our lives?

How has palm oil penetrated every corner of our lives? No innovation has led to a dramatic increase in palm oil consumption. Instead, it was the perfect product at the right time for industry after industry, each of which used it to replace ingredients and never returned. At the same time, palm oil is viewed by producing countries as a poverty alleviation mechanism, and international financial institutions see it as a growth engine for developing countries. The International Monetary Fund pushed Malaysia and Indonesia to increase production. 

As the palm industry has expanded, conservationists and environmental groups such as Greenpeace have begun to raise concerns about its devastating impact on carbon emissions and wildlife habitats. In response, there has been a backlash against palm oil, with UK supermarket Iceland promising last April that it would remove palm oil from all its own brand products by the end of 2018. In December, Norway banned the import of biofuels.

But by the time awareness of palm oil’s impact has spread, it has become so deeply ingrained in the consumer economy that it may now be too late to remove it. Tellingly, the Iceland supermarket failed to deliver on its 2018 promise. Instead, the company ended up removing its logo from products containing palm oil.

Determining which products contain palm oil, not to mention how sustainable it was sourced, requires an almost supernatural level of consumer consciousness. In any case, raising consumer awareness in the West won’t have much of an impact, given that Europe and the US account for less than 14% of global demand. More than half of global demand comes from Asia.

It’s been a good 20 years since the first worries about deforestation in Brazil, when consumer action slowed, not stopped, the destruction. With palm oil, “the reality is that the western world is only a small fraction of the consumer, and the rest of the world doesn’t care. So there is not much incentive to change,” said Neil Blomquist, managing director of Colorado Natural Habitat, which produces palm oil in Ecuador and Sierra Leone with the highest level of sustainability certification.

Palm oil’s worldwide dominance is the result of five factors: first, it has replaced less healthy fats in foods in the West; secondly, manufacturers insist on keeping prices low; third, it has replaced more expensive oils in home and personal care products; fourthly, because of its cheapness, it has been widely accepted as an edible oil in Asian countries; Finally, as Asian countries get richer, they begin to consume more fat, mostly in the form of palm oil.

The widespread use of palm oil began with processed foods. In the 1960s, scientists began to warn that high saturated fat could increase the risk of heart disease. Food manufacturers, including the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, have begun replacing it with margarine made with vegetable oils and low in saturated fat. However, by the early 1990s, it became clear that the margarine butter manufacturing process, known as partial hydrogenation, actually created a different type of fat, trans fat, which turned out to be even more unhealthy than saturated fat. The board of directors of Unilever saw the formation of a scientific consensus against trans fat and decided to get rid of it. “Unilever has always been very aware of the health concerns of the consumers of its products,” said James W Kinnear, Unilever’s board member at the time.

The switch happened suddenly. In 1994, Unilever refinery manager Gerrit Van Dijn received a call from Rotterdam. Twenty Unilever plants in 15 countries were to remove the partially hydrogenated oils from 600 fat blends and replace them with other components.

The project, for reasons Van Dein cannot explain, was called “Paddington”. First, he needed to figure out what could replace trans fat while still retaining its favorable properties, such as staying solid at room temperature. In the end, there was only one choice: oil from the oil palm, or palm oil extracted from its fruit, or palm oil from seeds. No other oil can be refined to the consistency required for Unilever’s various margarine blends and baked goods without the production of trans fats. It was the only alternative to partially hydrogenated oils, Van Dein said. Palm oil also contained less saturated fat.

Switching at each plant had to take place simultaneously. The production lines couldn’t handle the mixture of old oils and new ones. “On a certain day, all these tanks had to be cleared of trans-containing components and filled with other components. From a logistical point of view, it was a nightmare,” said Van Dein.

Because Unilever had occasionally used palm oil in the past, the supply chain was already up and running. But it took 6 weeks to deliver raw materials from Malaysia to Europe. Van Dein began to buy more and more palm oil, arranging shipments to various factories on schedule. And then one day in 1995, when trucks lined up outside Unilever factories across Europe, it happened.

This was the moment that changed the processed food industry forever. Unilever was the pioneer. After Van Deijn orchestrated the company’s transition to palm oil, virtually every other food company followed suit. In 2001, the American Heart Association released a statement stating that “the optimal diet for reducing the risk of chronic disease is one in which saturated fatty acids are reduced and trans-fatty acids are virtually eliminated from the fat produced.” Today, more than two-thirds of palm oil is used for food. Consumption in the EU has more than tripled since the Paddington project until 2015. That same year, the US Food and Drug Administration gave food manufacturers 3 years to eliminate all trans fats from every margarine, cookie, cake, pie, popcorn, frozen pizza, doughnut and cookie sold in the US. Almost all of them have now been replaced by palm oil.

Compared to all the palm oil now consumed in Europe and the US, Asia uses far more: India, China and Indonesia account for nearly 40% of the world’s total palm oil consumers. Growth was fastest in India, where the accelerating economy was another factor in palm oil’s newfound popularity.

One of the common features of economic development throughout the world and throughout history is that the consumption of fat by the population is growing in step with its income. From 1993 to 2013, India’s per capita GDP increased from $298 to $1452. Over the same period, fat consumption increased by 35% in rural areas and 25% in urban areas, with palm oil a major component of this escalation. Government-subsidized Fair Price Shops, a food distribution network for the poor, began selling imported palm oil in 1978, mainly for cooking. Two years later, 290 stores unloaded 000 tons. By 273, Indian palm oil imports had risen to nearly 500 million tons, reaching over 1995 million tons by 1. In those years, the poverty rate fell by half, and the population grew by 2015%.

But palm oil is no longer just used for home cooking in India. Today it is a large part of the growing fast food industry in the country. India’s fast food market grew by 83% between 2011 and 2016 alone. Domino’s Pizza, Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC, Mcdonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, all of which use palm oil, now have 2784 food outlets in the country. Over the same period, sales of packaged foods increased by 138% because dozens of packaged snacks containing palm oil can be purchased for pennies.

The versatility of palm oil is not limited to food. Unlike other oils, it can be easily and inexpensively separated into oils of various consistencies, making it reusable. “It has a huge advantage because of its versatility,” said Carl Beck-Nielsen, chief executive officer of United Plantations Berhad, a Malaysian palm oil producer.

Soon after the processed food business discovered the magical properties of palm oil, industries such as personal care products and transportation fuel also began using it to replace other oils.

As palm oil has become more widely used around the world, it has also replaced animal products in detergents and personal care products such as soap, shampoo, lotion, etc. Today, 70% of personal care products contain one or more palm oil derivatives.

Just as Van Dein discovered at Unilever that the composition of palm oil was perfect for them, manufacturers looking for alternatives to animal fats have discovered that palm oils contain the same set of fat types as lard. No other alternative can provide the same benefits for such a wide range of products.

Signer believes that the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the early 1990s, when brain disease among cattle spread to some people who ate beef, caused a greater shift in consumption habits. “Public opinion, brand equity and marketing have come together to move away from animal-based products in more fashion-focused industries such as personal care.”

In the past, when fat was used in products such as soap, a by-product of the meat industry, animal fat, was used. Now, in response to consumers’ desire for ingredients perceived as more “natural”, soap, detergent and cosmetic manufacturers have replaced the local by-product with one that must be transported thousands of miles and is causing environmental destruction in the countries where it is produced. Although, of course, the meat industry brings its own environmental harm.

The same thing happened with biofuels – the intention to reduce environmental harm had unintended consequences. In 1997, a European Commission report called for an increase in the share of total energy consumption from renewable sources. Three years later, she mentioned the environmental benefits of biofuels for transport and in 2009 passed the Renewable Energy Directive, which included a 10% target for the share of transport fuels coming from biofuels by 2020.

Unlike food, home and personal care, where palm oil’s chemistry makes it an ideal alternative when it comes to biofuels, palm, soybean, canola and sunflower oils work equally well. But palm oil has one big advantage over these competing oils – price.

Currently, oil palm plantations occupy more than 27 million hectares of the earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been wiped out and replaced with “green wastes” that are virtually devoid of biodiversity in an area the size of New Zealand.


The warm, humid climate of the tropics offers ideal growing conditions for oil palms. Day after day, vast swaths of tropical forests in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are being bulldozed or burned to make way for new plantations, releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. As a result, Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, overtook the US in greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. Including CO2 and methane emissions, palm oil-based biofuels actually have three times the climate impact of traditional fossil fuels.

As their forest habitat clears up, endangered species such as the orangutan, the Bornean elephant and the Sumatran tiger are moving closer to extinction. Smallholders and indigenous peoples who have inhabited and protected forests for generations are often brutally driven from their lands. In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to palm oil production. Human rights violations occur daily, even on supposedly “sustainable” and “organic” plantations.

What can be done?

70 orangutans still roam the forests of Southeast Asia, but biofuel policies are pushing them to the brink of extinction. Each new plantation in Borneo destroys another piece of their habitat. Increasing pressure on politicians is imperative if we are to save our tree relatives. Apart from this, however, there is much more that we can do in everyday life.

Enjoy homemade food. Cook your own and use alternative oils like olive or sunflower.

Read labels. Labeling regulations require food manufacturers to clearly state ingredients. However, in the case of non-food products such as cosmetics and cleaning products, a wide range of chemical names can still be used to disguise the use of palm oil. Familiarize yourself with these names and avoid them.

Write to manufacturers. Companies can be very sensitive to issues that give their products a bad reputation, so asking manufacturers and retailers can make a real difference. Public pressure and increased awareness of the issue has already prompted some growers to stop using palm oil.

Leave the car at home. If possible, walk or ride a bike.

Stay informed and inform others. Big business and governments would like us to believe that biofuels are good for the climate and that oil palm plantations are sustainable. Share information with your family and friends.

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