Palm oil and orangutans: What’s the story? 7

The Organic Adventurer is back! Actually, we’ve been “back,” reading page after page of documentation and research in order to bring you that update on GMOs and the labeling fight. But that’s for the next post. Something happened the other day that made us realize we needed to stop everything and put a quick post up here.

Palm oil has been getting a lot of attention lately, something that’s finally been reflected in popular news outlets. So recently, someone asked about palm oil. This person was under the impression that it was not vegan because it was extracted from orangutans. Now before you let your palm fly to your forehead, consider this: One very important thing an educator learns quickly by being an educator is that if one person has a question or misunderstands something, you can bet there are many more people in the same situation. So we should thank courageous people who speak up and seek answers and clarity.

Another important thing an educator learns to do is to identify the root of the misunderstanding in order to address it in the best way possible. The root of this misunderstanding is a common one: the conflation of different things because of the commonalities they share. Yes, a lot of the vegan online presence has been urging people to stay away from palm oil, especially lately, but not because of what palm oil is or isn’t.

An oil palm tree and the fruits from which the oil is extracted Graphic: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service

Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm, so it is vegan. And because of its semisolid state at room temperature (much like coconut oil), it’s a component of a number of products that vegans love…or would like to love. So why are many in the vegan community advising against palm oil? Many vegans, being very passionate about animal welfare, are concerned about this particular product. For that matter, so are environmentalists, animal lovers, scientists and many others, regardless of their dietary choices.

The problem is that palm oil’s popularity has exploded, especially within the last ten years. It’s cheaper than other vegetable oils and is even being used as biofuel, which has helped the spike in demand for the product.

Oil palm planting has spiked and is projected to continue to rise Graphic: Global Change Biology

This is where the orangutans come in: That spike in demand caused what basically amounts to a gold rush-style free-for-all in clearing forest to plant oil palms, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysia and Indonesia are major palm oil producing countries Graphic: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service

Of course, these tropical forests are (or were) home to many animals, including orangutans. These orangutans (and other animals) are either killed by being pushed out of their native habitat or simply murdered, like these endangered elephants in Malaysia (for story, see

A number of pygmy elephants were apparently poisoned Graphic: Sabah Wildlife Department

This is done to clear the way for the land to be “converted,” a euphemism for “clear cut,” for oil palm plantations. The practice is devastating for the wildlife, of course, and also to the environment and, in turn, humans. The main “environmental job” of these tropical forests in nature is to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. No forests, no exchange, and CO2 builds up in the atmosphere. But much of the land that’s being destroyed to produce palm oil is also peatland forest. The main “environmental job” of peatland forest is to sequester, to serve as a kind of storage unit, for carbon. Draining those peatlands for oil palm planting allows billions of tonnes of CO2 to be released back into the atmosphere. Very quickly. With less and less of the “exchange mechanism” trees provide. The result, ultimately, is global warming.

Left: Progressive deforestation on Borneo. Dark green = peat forest; light green = plantations Graphic: J. Mietinnen et al.; Right: Smoke from land clearing on Borneo can be seen from space Graphic: NASA

Some projections say that “very little peatland forest is likely to remain in Southeast Asia by the end of the current decade”1 and some say that none will be left by 20302 if drastic steps aren’t taken. Either way, it’s not good.

But back to the orangutans. The most recent wave of awareness about their plight was thanks to an incident last summer in which an orangutan, whose habitat had been disturbed, set up camp in a tree near a village in Indonesia. The villagers tried to get the animal to leave by smoking it out of the tree, but the flames reached the animal and set it on fire. The orangutan fell from the tree with serious burns and was rescued by International Animal Rescue. It was, at first, expected to recover, but ultimately died ( for the initial story, and for the end of the tragedy). The associated photos from International Animal Rescue did much to raise awareness of the connection between the destruction of animal habitat and the palm oil industry:

Graphic: International Animal Rescue

The industry is fully aware that the world is watching. In 2001, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, was formed to, ostensibly, set guidelines for the sustainable production of palm oil. But since the RSPO membership consists of the companies that produce and use palm oil and enforcement of its code of conduct is handled by the RSPO itself, there results a “fox in the henhouse” problem of the kind we’ve already seen in our own FDA and USDA. In other words, not much of substance has been done. In fact, a 2011 article in Science Magazine quotes a peatland researcher in the region as saying that the Indonesian government isn’t really doing anything about the problem either and that clearing actually sped up in order to get it done before the enforcement of any conservation laws. Then there’s the Sustainable Management of Peatland Forests in Southeast Asia (, which sounds great, except that its executing agency, made up of Southeast Asian countries, was founded in 1967. You’d think they’d have fostered the political will and structure by now to get further with this issue than they have. But they have managed to organize a photography contest. They also have plans, extending from 2006 to 2020, to “strengthen regional cooperation for implementation of the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy.” Too bad the peatland will be mostly gone by 2020.

So hopefully this information clears up any misunderstanding and gives people a primer on the issue. To recap: As a vegetable, not animal, oil, palm oil is vegan (though the products that contain it may not be). However, this isn’t just a “vegan issue,” since the unsustainable production of palm oil affects us all via overlapping ethical, environmental, economic and humanitarian issues, interests and concerns.

Of course we realize that anyone reading this post, especially after the last part about apathetic governments, greenwashing industry and ineffective regulatory bodies playing hot potato with the lungs of our planet, would want to know what a lone global citizen could possibly do. Another reason this issue affects us all overlaps with what we can do about it: Palm oil is in just about everything, so essentially we are all consumers of palm oil and, thus, all supporters of its currently unsustainable and unethical production. Therein lies the answer to what we can do about it.

Governments, industry and regulatory bodies need to work together honestly to strike a sustainable balance in the production of products such as palm oil. But we global citizens are increasingly aware that what should happen doesn’t happen without pressure from us. If we don’t buy it (and let companies know why we’re not buying it), it becomes less valuable and the gold rush ends. Yes, that means that the palm oil economic boom in Southeast Asia will level off. But like the devastating plowing of the American Plains, unethical lending practices that contributed to the recent economic crisis and other, current human enterprises that will probably end similarly, we humans need to learn, once again, that just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

It isn’t easy to not buy palm oil. Again, it’s in just about everything, and it goes by so many different names that it’s hard to keep up. But with some awareness and the will to read labels, it can be done, at least to enough of an extent to make an impact. On the Occupy the Environment Facebook page (, there are a couple of graphics of products and brands that use palm oil and RSPO member companies. They’ll be too small to see very well here, so you should really like the OTE page and view them there.

Some brands that use palm oil and RSPO member companies Graphic: Occupy the Environment

Some brands that use palm oil Graphic: Occupy the Environment

And the Say No to Palm Oil website ( has a handy list of 30 different names for palm oil, as well as other information on how to identify palm oil in a product. The list is below, but the site is a really good source of information, so check it out.


-Vegetable Oil                                                                                – Palm Stearine#

-Vegetable Fat                                                                               – Palmitoyl oxostearamide #

-Sodium Laureth Sulfate (in almost everything that foams) ^              – Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3 #

-Sodium Lauryl Sulfate ^                                                                 – Steareth -2 *

-Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS) ^                                      – Steareth -20 *

-Palm Kernel#                                                                                – Sodium Kernelate #

-Palm Oil Kernel #                                                                           – Sodium Palm Kernelate #

-Palm Fruit Oil #                                                                             – Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate *

-Palmate #                                                                                       – Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate ^

-Palmitate #                                                                                    – Hydrated Palm Glycerides #

-Palmolein #                                                                                   – Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye ^

-Glyceryl Stearate #                                                                       – Cetyl Palmitate #

-Stearic Acid #                                                                               – Octyl Palmitate #

-Elaeis Guineensis #                                                                        – Cetyl Alcohol ^

-Palmitic Acid #                                                                             – Palmityl Alcohol #

# These ingredients are definitely palm oil or derived from palm oil.

* These ingredients are often derived from palm oil, but could be derived from other vegetable oils.

^ These ingredients are either derived from palm oil or coconut oil.

In case you need a bit more motivation, ridding your diet of palm oil will benefit your health as well as going a long way toward reducing your purchasing of palm oil. It’s a saturated fat, and you’re probably aware of how unhealthy those are. If you just look at that list of products containing palm oil, you get a sense of how unhealthy those products are: Baby Ruth, Breyer’s ice cream and Doritos are just a few of the foods listed. Just staying away from packaged, prepared, processed foods can eliminate a lot of palm oil from your diet. As always, though, read labels. And remember that it’s not just in food. Use the sources provided to find personal care and household products without palm oil.

We hope that you’ll help out other readers by commenting with the names of products you like that are verified as being palm oil-free. And if you need help identifying palm oil in a product, finding an alternative, or with any aspect of “green” living, contact us for a consultation. Also, please send along questions you may have or questions/possible misperceptions that you may have heard from others about this issue or any other “green” issue. We can all learn from them!



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7 thoughts on “Palm oil and orangutans: What’s the story?

  • Dawn

    Anna, this information is SO SAD. Until people become aware things will not change. The facts and photos are uncomfortable. I appreciate you taking the time to write up this post. I will be sharing this article with everyone I know!

    • The Organic Adventurer

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Dawn! The facts and photos are indeed very disturbing. Isn’t it also so sad how complacent we humans are until we’re disturbed by something? Thank you so much for sharing the information and spreading the word. Like you said, things won’t change until people become aware. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment!

  • The Organic Adventurer

    Well, that was fast! A reader sent pictures of a bag of chips soon after we posted. First, though, don’t take this, or any palm oil-free product info. readers send, as a product endorsement. It’s not. We just figure that the less digging people have to do to avoid palm oil, the more likely they are to avoid it! So the reader sent pictures of a bag of Kettle brand sea salt flavor chips. The ingredients are simple (always a good sign!): Potatoes, safflower and/or sunflower oil, sea salt. The company also claims to use non-GMO ingredients. This is information provided by the company itself, so take that for what it’s worth. And, while we’re of the opinion that it’s best to avoid oil altogether, at least this product doesn’t contain palm oil!

  • Lou

    Hi this information is fantastic. Just wondering if coconut oil is the same as palm oil? It’s probably an obvious question but I really want to know as I have been recommend using unrefined coconut oil for a natural therapy for arthritis recently and will only do it if I know that the product is ethically sourced. Advice?

    • The Organic Adventurer Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Lou! The oils are not the same in that they come from two different plants…same family, different genus and species. But you’ve hit the nail on the head: The key is for the product to be ethically sourced. Any product can be environmentally damaging and ethically questionable if it’s not grown and produced in a truly sustainable, ethical way. Research the sustainable bona fides of each product you’re considering and, ultimately, stick to your guns! If it’s not ethically sourced, don’t buy it. Contact us for an “à la carte” consultation if you need help researching specific products. Thanks again for reading, and we wish you good health!

  • DeeDee

    I’m so hurt to see how some people are complete monsters and will do anything to earn money. I will never buy anything with palm oil. I love orangutans as well.

    • The Organic Adventurer Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting, DeeDee! I couldn’t agree more. These people’s primary motivation is financial, so that’s why our biggest weapon in this fight is our wallets. If we refuse to buy unsustainable, unethically produced products, companies will be forced to change their ways. Remember, if you need help identifying palm oil in a product, finding an alternative, or with any aspect of “green” living, contact us for a consultation. Thanks for taking action for the planet!