Is Palm Oil Vegan? The Impact of Palm Oil Production on Animals, the Environment, and Plantation Workers

Published on

Heads up: this page includes affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products or equipment I have personally vetted.

Is Palm Oil Vegan Ethics, Environmentalism, and Humanitarian Issues Discussed

You may be surprised to learn that there is a lot of disagreement within the vegan community over palm oil. Whether you are a vegan, environmentalist, animal activist, or just a concerned consumer who cares about how your food is produced, this is an important topic to learn more about. In this blog post, we will explore why many vegans don’t support palm oil due to its impact on the environment, animals, and plantation workers.

Is Palm Oil Vegan?

Palm oil is a fun topic to bring up in mixed company. Try it. Then sit back and watch the fireworks.

Palm oil is one of the more debated topics within the vegan community. Some call it vegan because it’s a plant product and doesn’t contain any animal-derived ingredients. Others argue that its sourcing and production directly result in the slaughter of countless animals in the rainforests, and therefore does not fit with a cruelty-free lifestyle.

Which side are you on? You may change your mind by the end of this read.

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis), which grow in tropical regions. It has a neutral taste, is semi-solid at room temperature, and is stable during heating with a smoke point of 455 degrees F (235 degrees C).

Palm oil is a vegetable oil produced from the fruit of palm oil trees

It has a long shelf life and is very cheap to produce. In fact, oil palm is one of the most productive and cost-efficient crops we have. Oil palm trees can be harvested all year round and they yield far more product than soy, sunflower, and rapeseed oil crops.

All of these properties make it an ideal additive to consumer products, including packaged and spreadable foods, cosmetics, and soaps. It is an additive in nearly 50 percent of all packaged goods in supermarkets.

Many vegan products have palm oil in them as well! Vegan butter and vegan cheese are notorious for using palm oil because its semi-solid properties help create authentic consistencies and textures.

Food manufacturers use palm kernel oil frequently as well. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seeds, or kernels, instead of the flesh of the fruit. It has slightly different properties than palm oil, which is why you may see one or the other, or even both, on a nutrition label.

What is Palm Oil Used in?

A better question may be, “what is palm oil not used in?” It is currently estimated that almost half of all pre-packaged food products contain palm oil. It’s also found in personal hygiene products, soaps, detergents, and even candles.

Palm oil is incredibly versatile due to its semi-solid state and high smoke point. Food manufacturers can use it to create a variety of different textures without affecting the taste of the final product. If you eat packaged or processed foods you likely eat palm oil on a pretty regular basis.

Go to your pantry, fridge, or freezer and check just how many of the packaged foods you have in there include palm oil. Seriously, you’ll be shocked!

How to Spot Palm Oil in Foods

Palm oil is used in a lot of packaged and processed foods, but due to its controversial nature, some manufacturers prefer that its name be listed somewhat discreetly on nutrition labels.

First, look for the word “palm” listed specifically on food labels. It is also frequently written as palm oil, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palm olein, palmate, palmitate, palm stearin, or palmitic acid. Notice these all start with the root word, “palm.”

Those aren’t the only names that get listed on product labels, though. Other common names you will see for palm oil and its derivatives include glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, or elaeis guineensis.

Manufacturers may even list palm oil as vegetable oil or vegetable fat! There isn’t really a regulation that states that palm oil must be listed as palm oil. It is still a vegetable oil, so it can be listed as such, along with other vegetable oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, or safflower oil.

Just go look at the vegetable oil you have in your pantry. The label will say vegetable oil, but is it soybean oil or canola oil? Flip to the back of the bottle and look at the ingredients. That’s where you’ll get your answer. Food labeling practices are fun, aren’t they?!

How far you want to go with looking for palm oil in your processed foods is obviously up to you. Just remember that even though companies don’t have to list it by name on the label, most will.

While you’re looking at nutrition labels, here’s how to know if the sugar in your favorite treats is vegan.

Is Palm Oil Healthy?

All controversy aside, palm oil does have some health benefits. Fresh palm oil, especially red palm oil, has several purported benefits, including lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, reducing the risk of atherosclerosis, improving the immune system, and even preventing vitamin A deficiency. (1)

This may be due to the fact that palm oil is low in saturated fat and high in antioxidants like beta-carotene, tocotrienols, tocopherols, and vitamin E. (1)

Or it could be study bias.

One study analyzed 67 publications on dietary palm oil and found that the type of fat palm oil was compared to is what made the biggest difference. Studies showed that palm oil improved blood lipid profiles when people switched to palm oil from a diet rich in saturated and trans fats. But, when people moved to palm oil from a diet rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, their blood lipid profiles got worse. (2)

So it’s healthier than eating bacon and lard, but not as healthy as olive, canola, or avocado oils. In other words, it’s not the worst thing you can put in your body, but it’s not good either. Sounds right.

From a health standpoint, you’re simply better off using one of the three oils I just mentioned and trying to avoid it in processed foods as often as possible.

Why Don’t Vegans Eat Palm Oil?

Palm oil is vegetable oil and no animal-derived ingredients are used in its production. So it’s not the ingredients that vegans take issue with. It’s the manufacturing practices.

According to the Vegan Society, veganism is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

Farming of palm oil trees has a negative impact on the environment, slaughters and displaces wildlife, and is linked to worker abuse in underdeveloped countries. For these reasons, many argue that palm oil does not meet the vegan definition of cruelty-free.

But the modern definition for veganism seems to be in flux. More and more vegans are taking a stance against environmental issues as well as animal exploitation. This is why the environmental impacts of palm oil production enter the discussion as well.

Palm Oil’s Impact on the Environment

Palm oil production has devastating consequences to our planet, including massive deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and toxic pollution to nearby waterways.

Deforestation

Oil palm trees only grow in tropical areas, and once the trees are planted they take up a lot of space. This has led to the deforestation of rainforests in order to make room for palm oil plantations.

Palm oil causes deforestation of tropical rainforests

Every hour an area of rainforest equal to 300 football fields is destroyed for palm oil according to Greenpeace. Indonesia and Malaysia may destroy all of their native forests in the near future at this rate, which is where about 85 percent of all palm oil comes from.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

As an added little bonus, oil palms are cut down every few years when they grow too tall to reach their fruit, resulting in additional ecological damage. When they are chopped down, not only do we lose the trees’ ability to sequester greenhouse gases, but the trees are burned, releasing millions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Burning and clearing of rainforests leads to the release of harmful greenhouse gasses

According to a report from Wetlands International, it is estimated that the 510,000 hectares of peatlands are drained for palm oil production in Malaysia in one year, releasing into the atmosphere of 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. They further state that “the clearing, draining and burning of peat swamp forests is responsible for about 10 per cent of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions.” (3)

Our rainforests play a crucial role in moderating the global climate and produce more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. Their loss could very well mean disaster for our planet.

Fertilizers

Palm oil is definitely not organic. To produce the high yield of oil that is desired, plantations rely on heavy doses of fertilizers and pesticides. These chemicals often flow into waterways, poisoning fish and other wildlife.

Fertilizers and Pesticides for Palm Oil

And in order to keep pests from destroying their crops, palm oil producers use a huge amount of pesticides. The World Health Organization has stated that workers who are exposed to these chemicals have an increased risk of developing cancer and other chronic illnesses.

Biodiesel

You may want to hold off on your home-converted biodiesel bus. More and more palm oil is being used for biodiesel production. Unfortunately, the environmental savings you’re getting by converting to biodiesel is far outweighed by the devastating impact palm oil production has on the planet.

Palm Oil’s Impact on Wildlife

Adopt an Orangutan

Wildlife needs land and resources to live and thrive. And our rainforests are home to countless species; some endangered and some not yet discovered. Because acres of rainforest have been cleared to produce palm oil, the rainforest’s biodiversity is taking a hit.

Rainforests are the natural habitat of many species, including orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros, bears, elephants, otters, leopards, and monkeys. Loss of habitable land for these animals means they must move for both space and food.

But it’s not just the loss of land that poses a threat.

Poachers have unrestricted access to the cleared habitats for palm oil plantations. This has been especially devastating for rare Sumatran tigers, who are expected to become extinct in the next few years due to poaching.

Sumatran Tigers Are Endangered

Other endangered species aren’t faring any better.

In just the past 75 years, 80 percent of Sumatran elephants have been wiped out due to palm oil production. today there are between 2,400 and 2,800 of this beautiful species left. Their habitat has been burned and cleared away, leaving them little protection or resources to survive. (4)

Endangered Sumatran Elephants

But few animals in the rainforest have it worse than orangutans.

The clearing of land by palm oil plantations leaves the orangutans essentially stranded on small sections of land, enclosed on all sides by factories. Many starve because their resources have been burned away, while others make their way onto factory plantations looking for food.

Sumatran Orangutans Are the Most Heavily Poached

In 2006, at least 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by palm workers. Numerous videos have been posted online showing these atrocities.

Today there are less than 7,500 Sumatran orangutans left, and the Orangutan Foundation lists palm oil production as the number one threat to their survival.

Palm Oil’s Impact on Humans

Palm oil is cheap. You don’t get to buy a Hungry Man Dinner for $3.00 if it’s made from expensive ingredients. A major reason why palm oil is so inexpensive is because of poor working conditions and labor abuses.

The Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) keeps a list of goods they believe are produced in violation of international standards. Palm oil production is detailed as involving both forced labor and child labor in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Sierra Leone. (5)

Unfair Labor Practices

The ILAB states:

“There are reports that adult workers are forced to work in the production of palm oil in Indonesia. The palm oil industry is labor-intensive and employs between 3.7 million and 8 million workers. According to local media and NGO reports, thousands of individuals have been subjected to forced labor in the production of palm oil. Many of the workers on palm oil plantations are internal migrants within Indonesia, some of whom had to pay high recruitment fees leading to debt. It is widely reported that palm oil harvesters’ daily targets, which are set by companies, are unachievable within a 7-hour workday, compelling workers to work several hours beyond what the law permits without overtime pay because they fear steep deductions in wages if they do not meet their targets. Individuals work in remote, isolated plantations with limited freedom of movement and communication. Victims and local NGOs report that some workers who live on the plantation experience degrading living conditions, with no access to clean water or latrines. Some workers who work with hazardous pesticides and fertilizers are not provided with personal protective equipment, and they experience health problems and increased risks of injury from exposure to dangerous chemicals.” (5)

They also found that children often engage in dangerous tasks in plantation agriculture, including in palm oil and tobacco production. (6)

A couple of things stand out here.

Some of these workers are migrants who pay fees for the opportunity to work on the plantations. They live and work in horrendous conditions, and many can’t leave because they still owe their recruitment fee. Essentially they are forced into debt-bondage.

And the harvesters work under a quota system. They have to collect a certain amount before they can earn their wages. They are set to work 7 hour days, as is the standard workday for countries where palm oil is produced, but that doesn’t give them enough time to meet their quota. So they work longer hours, without extra pay, or they bring their wives and children to help. (7)

Everyone loses, except the companies.

Can Palm Oil Production Truly be Sustainable?

There actually is certified sustainable palm oil. There are practices for making palm oil that lessen the damage to the environment and animals, and that conform to fair labor practices.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certifies companies as sustainable if they meet a set of standards. Some of these include:

Workers must provide clean water, food, and medical care to their employees on-site or in clinics if necessary.
Requirement for what is called “free and informed consent” from communities who may be affected by the palm oil factory’s development.
Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity, including avoiding areas with endangered species or other protected animals, protecting rivers, lakes, forests, and improving soil fertility.
A commitment to transparency
Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
Use of appropriate best practices

That all sounds like a step in the right direction, but the RSPO doesn’t have any penalties for non-compliance.

Greenpeace reported that most of the largest RSPO members routinely ignore the laws. (8) And The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) have found that RSPO auditors are either “conducting alarmingly substandard assessments” or “in some instances auditors actually collude with plantation companies to disguise violations of the RSPO Standard.” (9)

Most plantations that are certified sustainable are on grounds that were already deforested and abandoned. Companies that don’t care about the rainforest at all use up the available resources and then move on to the next piece of land.

Where do sustainable palm plantations get their land? They purchase areas that were already stripped and abandoned, or sold, by non-certified companies. They don’t have to worry about the harmful effect of deforestation because they didn’t create it in the first place.

The Rainforest Alliance is another body that certifies sustainable palm oil products, but whether or not it’s any more effective than RSPO is anyone’s guess.

Regardless, both of these are still better than the alternative. My guess would be that it really comes down to the company, their mission statement, and whether or not they truly believe they want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

What’s the Alternative?

One of the best things that palm has going for it is that it is very efficient to grow. Alternatives like soybean, rapeseed, coconut, and sunflower can take up to nine times as much land to make the same amount of oil as palm.

Were companies to switch entirely to a different plant for oil, it is entirely possible that even more land would be deforested and more animals would lose their habitats and lives.

Veganism is technically about reducing animal suffering. Doing the least harm. I don’t honestly know if palm oil is the worst or best-case scenario.

Is Palm Oil Vegan? You’ll Have to Decide for Yourself.

I wish it were as straightforward as simply saying “yes, it’s vegan” or “no, it’s definitely not vegan.”

Palm is a plant product without animal derivatives, but the palm industry has terrible common practices in terms of animal cruelty and human rights.

Animals are beaten, killed, burned, and displaced as a direct result of the practices of the palm oil industry. And sustainable palm oil, while the best situation we currently have, is likely still far from ethical.

Many vegans avoid palm oil, but I know non-vegans that do as well. I have a friend that I enjoy discussions with about veganism and environmentalism. Personally, I don’t believe you can be an environmentalist and eat meat.

And remember, as a vegan you are already taking a huge stand against animal exploitation and cruelty. On that note, like many other vegetable products, most of the palm that is produced is actually used for animal feed. By not supporting animal agriculture, you’re supporting far less of the palm oil industry as well.

Is Palm Oil Vegan Conclusion

Whether or not palm oil is vegan is a complicated question with no easy answer. On the one hand, palm is a plant product and its production doesn’t involve any animal derivatives. It’s also cheap to manufacture and produces a large amount of oil with less land usage.

On the other hand, palm production is directly linked to deforestation and habitat loss for animals and indigenous people throughout the world.

It’s hard to say whether or not you should purchase products that contain palm oil or avoid them completely based on these reasons alone. Your decision will depend largely on your ethics and ideals.

So I leave this question up to each individual vegan out there who has already decided what they stand for most strongly!

Personally, I avoid it whenever possible. Often times that is easy because I rarely eat anything highly processed or packaged. I support vegan companies that I know steer clear of palm oil, and if I have to make a choice on a new product I look to see if palm oil or one of its derivatives is on the package. If it is, I may look for an alternative. Or I may look for RSPO or Rainforest Alliance certification. But sometimes I’ll still make the purchase if it’s the only option.

Do the least harm.

References

  1. Oguntibeju, O O et al. “Red palm oil: nutritional, physiological and therapeutic roles in improving human wellbeing and quality of life.” British journal of biomedical science vol. 66,4 (2009): 216-22. doi:10.1080/09674845.2009.11730279
  2. Gesteiro, Eva et al. “Aceite de palma y salud cardiovascular: consideraciones para valorar la literatura” [Palm oil and cardiovascular health: considerations to evaluate the literature critically]. Nutricion hospitalaria vol. 35,5 1229-1242. 8 Oct. 2018, doi:10.20960/nh.1970
  3. “Malaysian Palm Oil Destroying Forests, Report Warns.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Feb. 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/feb/02/malaysian-palm-oil-forests.
  4. “Orangutans of Sumatra – Rebuilding Their Forest for a Sustainable Future.” Saving Nature, 23 Apr. 2021, https://savingnature.com/sumatra-orangutans/?utm_medium=adwords&utm_campaign=sumatra&utm_source=rhinos&utm_content=orangustan_conservation&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI-Zu13Naw9QIVDyitBh0CFwZAEAAYASAAEgKxM_D_BwE.
  5. “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.” United States Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods-print?tid=All&field_exp_good_target_id=5827&field_exp_exploitation_type_target_id_1=All&items_per_page=10.
  6. “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – Indonesia: U.S. Department of Labor.” United States Department of Labor, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/indonesia.
  7. Yi, Beh Lih. “Exploitation, Child Labor Found in Indonesia Palm Oil Linked to PepsiCo: Charities.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 15 June 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-palmoil-rights/exploitation-child-labor-found-in-indonesia-palm-oil-linked-to-pepsico-charities-idUSKCN0Z11V8.
  8. “Certifying Destruction – Greenpeace.” CERTIFYING DESTRUCTION: Why Consumer Companies Need to Go beyond the RSPO to Stop Forest Destruction, Greenpeace, https://www.greenpeace.org/static/planet4-sweden-stateless/2019/01/69d1a6b8-69d1a6b8-rspo-certifying-destruction.pdf.
  9. “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Who Watches the Watchmen? – EIA Global, https://eia-global.org/reports/who-watches-the-watchmen.

*Author's Note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It's always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet, or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.

Photo of author
AUTHOR
Matt Walter, CHN, M.A.T
I studied Food Science and Human Nutrition at Washington State University and interned as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for the WSU football team. I am a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and former personal trainer and competitive CrossFit athlete. My mission is to make embracing and adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle simple and fun!