Palm oil: it’s in all your junk food. Do you really need it?

On the palm oil trail...

On the palm oil trail…

When the subject of palm oil is debated, sustainability is always at the center of the discussion. We focus on sustainability — growing more palm oil while minimizing damage to the environment and maximizing returns for local communities and smallholder farmers. The working assumption is that we need ever increasing quantities of palm oil to meet growing demand. Rarely do we ask what drives the demand and whether all palm oil consumption is necessary or good.

Palm oil is used in a wide array of processed foods (and cosmetics). It’s estimated that half of all products in U.S. supermarkets contain palm oil. And as more people around the world turn to processed foods, the demand for palm oil skyrockets. But diets high in processed foods are linked to obesity, diabetes and a host of costly health problems. Does the planet really need to consume more processed foods? Can we slow down the ever-increasing demand for palm oil by reducing our consumption of processed and junk foods?

It would be great if these questions were part of the palm oil debate. Smallholder farmers across the Congo Basin do need to grow and mill palm oil more efficiently to meet local demand and eliminate the need imports. But does that mean that millions of hectares of new plantations are needed?

The Rainforest Foundation in the U.K. has been pushing British producers of processed foods to use less palm oil in their products. “UK biscuit manufacturers and retailers are showing that it is possible to outright reduce the use of palm oil, which is going to have to occur globally if large areas of Africa’s rainforests are to be saved from conversion to palm plantations,” said Simon Counsell, Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation (U.K.).

This is an important step — next step is for consumers to reduce their own consumption of processed foods.

Read more: Penguins support gorillas as biscuit makers respond to palm oil threat

What is the price of palm oil? from Rainforest Action Network has information on palm oil in U.S. snack foods:

Palm oil and its derivatives are used in a remarkable array of products, such as ice cream, cookies, crackers, chocolate products, cereals, breakfast bars, cake mixes, doughnuts, potato chips, instant noodles, frozen sweets and meals, baby formula, margarine, and dry and canned soups.  Palm oil is also the most widely used frying oil in the world and is commonly used in the American fast food industry for products such as French fries.

The palm oil industry has grown dramatically over the past few decades and palm oil now accounts for a quarter of global vegetable oil consumption and nearly 60% of the global trade in vegetable oils. In the U.S. alone, palm oil imports have jumped 485% in the last decade.