Biscuits and gravy is one of my favorite foods. There’s nothing like the combination of fluffy biscuits and savory, meaty gravy. I was prepared to give up biscuits and gravy when I went veganish. But my husband made it his mission to recreate my favorite dish with as little animal products as possible. He perfected making the gravy without traditional milk and sausage. And he tried using margarine/vegan butter. He really did.
But, my lovelies, biscuits just don’t rise as well and aren’t as flaky without real butter. More importantly, margarine and butter substitutes are terrible. They typically contain palm oil. Palm oil is an extremely problematic ingredient with a hand in deforestation, loss of habitat, species extinction, a slew of human rights violations, and increased cholesterol.
Why Is Palm Oil So Bad?
Deforestation, Loss of Habitats/Biodiversity and Species Extinction
You’re probably helping cows by avoiding butter. But you’re definitely killing orangutans by consuming palm oil. And other animal species. The creation of palm oil farms decimates rain forests. Palm oil farming has caused 8% of the world’s deforestation from 1990-2008. And, uh, destroying the rainforests is bad.
Not only is the world losing acreage, but valuable animal and plant habitats. Not to mention the biodiversity of these regions. Southeast Asia, home to burgeoning palm oil farm creation, is the most biodiverse area in the world. It takes up only 3% of the world’s surface, but hosts 20% of all plant, animal and marine species. Southeast Asia contains four of the 25 “biodiversity hot spots.” A biodiversity hot spot is a biodiverse area that’s in environmental trouble. The trouble descending on these four areas? Palm oil farming.
Many plant and animal species depend on the rainforest to live. Destroying this habitat can lead to the destruction of these same species. Many of which scientists haven’t even identified yet.
Did I mention how deforestation occurs? Massive fires. These fires burn for weeks, releasing large amounts of harmful greenhouse gases in a (relatively) short time. These gases are harmful to the environment, animals, and humans. In 2013, deforestation fires were blamed for extreme air pollution levels as far away as Singapore. Residents had to stay inside and reported respiratory problems.
The location of these fires makes everything even worse. In Southeast Asia, palm oil farms are often placed on peatlands. Burning peatlands (rather than using available plains, empty areas, or degraded land) are most profitable for corporations. Companies often subsidize the costs of creating palm farms by selling the peatland timber. Turning bogs into farms is nothing short of devastating. Peatland soil is made from decaying animal and plant matter. It’s packed with carbon. Burning this land releases much more carbon than run-of-the-mill fires.
Agrochemicals are another harmful environmental factor of palm oil. These chemicals are often unregulated in the countries where palm oil farms fourish. And up to 25 different chemicals are used. An extremely harmful is paraquat. Paraquat has been banned in 13 countries and is most harmful to women. Especially the women who often work on these farms.
Human Rights Violations
Palm oil farming has improved economics for some villages in Indonesia and Malaysia. But palm oil production is rife with a slew of human rights violations, including:
- illegal seizure of tribal land
- labor trafficking
- child labor
- abuse of temporary contracts
- hazardous chemical exposure
Is Palm Oil Healthy?
No, not really.
It’s got one thing going for it: it’s free of trans fats. When trans fats were banned, manufacturers replaced them with palm oil. This alone makes me suspicious. Palm oil is high in saturated fat which can clog arteries and increase blood cholesterol.
What Foods Contain Palm Oil?
Most store-bought versions of the following foods contain palm oil. If you want to avoid palm oil, be extra vigilant when buying these foods.
- Ice Cream
- Processed Food/Baked Goods
- Vegan Products
- Frozen Pizzas
- Instant Noodles
- Flavored coffee
- Granola and Protein Bars
- Fast Food
- Drinks like Lipton’s Iced Tea and Hawaiian Punch
- Microwave Popcorn
- Sweet’N Low
- Soy Milk
- Peanut Butter
- Pet Food
- Coffee creamers
What Products Contain Palm Oil?
- Laundry Detergent
- Shampoos and Conditioners
- Skin Care
- Cleaning Products
Palm oil is in practically everything. I know. It’s very disheartening.
How To Avoid Palm Oil
Well, to be honest, completing avoiding palm oil is nearly impossible. But, knowing all the environmental, human rights, and health concerns surrounding this ingredient, we should at least try, right? Except corporations don’t make this easy. There are over 500 names used for palm oil and its derivatives on food/product labels. Like:
- Vegetable Oil
- Vegetable Fat
- Palm Kernel
- Palm Kernel Oil
- Palm Fruit Oil
- Stearic Acid
- Elaeis Guineensis
- Palmitic Acid
- Palm Stearine
- Palmitoyl Oxostearamide
- Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
- Sodium Kernelate
- Sodium Palm Kernelate
- Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate
- Hydrated Palm Glycerides
- Ethyl Palmitate
- Octyl Palmitate
- Palmityl Alcohol
- “Natural Flavors”
Become as familiar as possible with these alternative names for palm oil. Attempt to avoid products that contain them and vote with your dollar. Avoiding frozen, fast, and processed foods is a huge step in avoiding palm oil. Making cookies, granola bars, meals, and sauces/spreads/condiments at home will slash palm oil consumption.
This article has an extremely detailed list of palm oil-free products.
What About “Sustainable Palm Oil?”
It’s a joke. That’s just a label to make consumers feel warm and fuzzy. Kinda like the all-natural product labels, it doesn’t really mean anything. There’s no true way to ascertain that these palm oils are “sustainable.” For the right price, corrupt government officials and regulators will often slap these certifications on any crop. Fifteen years of fact-finding missions actually proved that “certifiable” palm oil farming was destroying more forests than “non-certifiable” ones.
And corporations use this “greenwashing” to their advantage. Earth Balance uses images of orangutans in their advertising to make consumers feel good, without actually doing anything useful. RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is an empty husk of an environmental agency that likes to sponsor articles in The Guardian such as 10 Things You Need To Know About Sustainable Palm Oil. Number 9 reads, “Consumers should not boycott palm oil.” I bet, RSPO, I bet.
SASPO (Southeast Asia Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil) is a much more trustworthy agency.
There’s a trend in the vegan community (especially online) to shame plant based eaters for not being “vegan enough.” But if you’re clutching a vat of Earth Balance and feeling holier-than-thou about your lack of dairy consumption, consider this article your wake-up call.
I’m not writing this in the hope that none of us will ever consume palm oil again. It’s extremely hard to avoid. But we can remain vigilant about shady food labeling and corporate greenwashing. We can call companies on their bull. We can vote with our dollars. And we can make our own food.