Is palm oil vegan or not? Why the controversy? I mean, it’s obviously vegan (at least from a technical standpoint). However, there are still many people who believe it’s not. Let’s see why…
There are many theories related to whether palm oil is vegan or not. Many of them are inclined to say yes because it’s a “natural” product, but due to its extraction method (palm oil deforestation), it is considered non-vegan.
The true and sad story about this situation is that palm oil is not considered a vegan food due to the strong mistreatment that orangutans seem to get.
As it is not considered a vegan food due to the ecological damage, vegan people should not ingest it. And if you are new to veganism, you know now that you should not add palm oil to your diet (however, it’s up to you to decide).
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil obtained from the palm fruit called Elaeis guineensis, the second most consumed oil in the world after soybean oil.
It is mainly used in the food industry but also in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and agrofuels.
Many foods use it because it costs very little money to produce since the workers who collect it are under slave-like conditions with meager wages, and there is also child labor.
Palm oil is rich in saturated fatty acids, specifically palmitic acid, a saturated type of fat harmful to health.
It is related to an increase in LDL cholesterol levels, a cardiovascular risk factor.
And not only that, but it is also related to the production of metastases from various cancers.
Also, refined palm oil, which is a basic ingredient in processed products and, therefore, the one that we consume the most, contains Glycidol and Monochlor Propanediol that facilitates the appearance of different types of cancers.
How has palm oil affected ecology?
The plant from which the oil is extracted is known as palm; it is found in huge and dense plantations in the middle of nature. The sad thing about this is that these plants are located in environments deep in the forests.
As they are found in the middle of dense plantation forests and animal fauna, they are frequently used by animals that live in these forests; most of the time, orangutans are found there.
These usually live around these plants, which have food supplies in them, and when they’re exploited, orangutans usually receive a lot of mistreatment by the people in charge of these jobs.
Because of orangutan mistreatment, the vegan community has decided to mark the palm oil as non-vegan due to the workers’ lack of ethics when removing the palms from the orangutans in the different plantations.
However, the Vegan Society has a different approach to palm oil by claiming it should be considered vegan. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide.
Palm oil is produced mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, which concentrate 85% of its world production.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), palm oil is the main cause of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The WWF points out that in Indonesia, the equivalent of 300 soccer fields per hour is deforested for palm oil plantations.
Deforestation in Borneo Island
This causes the displacement of peasant and indigenous communities and orangutans who, being in danger of extinction, are seeing their habitat disappear.
More than 50,000 orangutans have died as a result of deforestation caused by palm oil crops. It is estimated that around 50 orangutans are killed every week due to deforestation.
Not only do orangutans die from starvation, but they also burn to death when their forest is set on fire.
As it is common to leave the land vacant and then re-plant, many are killed with machetes or guns or run over by bulldozers, and others are captured to be sold to zoos.
Besides, access to the plantations has made it easier for poachers to reach them.
Not only orangutans are being affected by this situation. Other animals such as the Pygmy elephant, the Sumatran tiger, the Nebula panther, and many more see their home destroyed and are in danger of extinction.
Some products with palm oil are:
- Palm kernel oil, palm oil, vegetable fat (either fractionated or pure palm), palm butter, palmolein, among others
- Those derived ingredients such as palmitic acid, glycerin, stearic acid, fatty acids, and retinol palmitate, among others. These are mainly used in cosmetics
- Brands such as Flora, Frigo, Nestle, Kellogg’s, L’Oreal, McDonald’s, etc.
- Cookies like: Oreo, Fontaneda, Milka, Chips Ahoy, etc.
- Snacks and chocolates like: Doritos, Rufles, Ferrero Rocher, Nutella, etc.
- Some pizzas and broths also contain this oil. It is very used in fast-foods, and we all know it can damage our organism at some point
For instance, Oreo cookies don’t have any animal origin ingredients, so they are 100% vegetable and would be considered vegan.
But we know that veganism goes beyond food.
Therefore we believe that all foods made with palm oil are responsible for deforestation, the death of thousands of orangutans, and human rights violation, including child exploitation.
This is why palm oil is not an ethical food and therefore, not considered vegan.
How do I know if I consume palm oil?
A few years ago, we found food labels with an ingredient called “vegetable oil” without specifying exactly what oil was.
Now the legislation has changed, and it must say what oil it is; even so, there are different names for palm oil, so we leave you a list so that you don’t miss any:
- Palm oil
- Palm kernel oil
- Vegetable fat (palm)
- Fractionated and hydrogenated vegetable fat from palm kernel
- Sodium Palmitate
- Palm stearin
- Palmolein or Palm olein
- Palm butter
- Elaeis guineensis
Bear in mind; if a product doesn’t say what kind of vegetable oil it is, it’s most likely palm oil because if it were olive or sunflower oil, it would say it.
As mentioned earlier, it is also used in cosmetics, so here’s a list of the possible names that may appear on the label:
- Vegetable oil or fat
- Palmitic acid, or hexadecanoic acid
- Ascorbyl palmitate
- Stearic acid
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
- Palmitoil (or Palmitoyl)
- Glyceryl Stearate SE
- Emulsifier E472e,
- Additive E160 (Beta-carotene) and similar (Carotenoids, Apocarotenal Beta and Ethyl Ester)
- Beta-Apocarotenoic Acid
- Additive E570 – Fatty acids
- Vitamin A palmitate or retinyl palmitate
On the other hand…
Some people judge palm oil to be unethical as its production is harmful to orangutans.
Now, I think we should ask ourselves how is this crop different from other crops?
The truth is that palm oil cultivation harms not only orangutans but also other sentient animals that live in nature. However, they are ignored simply because they are not primates.
I believe that palm cultivation is not essentially different from any other crop. All large-scale agricultural cultivation harms the animals that are free in nature.
The damage that comes with palm oil production is no different from other vegetables produced.
For example, cocoa cultivation is devastating the forests, but its cultivation does not directly affect primates, although it does harm many other species.
Therefore, if palm oil has received so much attention, it is because, during its production, primates are killed – specifically orangutans – and there is a greater concern for those animals that look more like humans.
Nevertheless, no agricultural production is exempt from harming animals in various ways, either deliberately or accidentally. Most of these animals are usually insects, rodents, and birds.
Agriculture as an activity does not imply the use of animals and, since we need to consume vegetables to live, we can morally justify the existence of agriculture by claiming that the damage that agriculture entails would be legitimized because it is an activity motivated by survival and not by frivolous motives such as fun, pleasure or mere tradition.
Is palm oil vegan? Conclusion
The fact that animals die due to agriculture forces us to avoid or reduce the damage we cause them, either directly or indirectly.
Apart from this, the controversy over palm oil reveals a great deal of confusion about the meaning of veganism when one hears that palm oil consumption is not consistent with veganism.
That statement is not correct because veganism refers specifically to animals’ use and not to any form of harming them. If there is no use of animals, then it does not contradict veganism.
Of course, the ethics do not end or limit themselves in veganism, but the activity of producing or consuming palm oil would not in itself be contrary to veganism.
This is how activist Ben Frost explains it:
“We can, and should, strive to minimize our impact on the planet, but the presence of unintended harm has nothing to do with the purpose of veganism.
Veganism is about recognizing animals’ moral value and our subsequent obligation not to treat them exclusively as resources, properties because doing so is a direct denial and violation of that moral value.
Veganism is about recognizing that we have no right to continue to use animals as things for our own unnecessary purposes.
It is about recognizing that we must similarly treat similar interests and give non-humans the right not to be treated as property, just as we do with humans.
They all have the same interests in not suffering and continuing to live, yet we deny the existence and value of those interests when it comes to animals based on species bias.
I should point out that veganism would avoid all the victims of institutionalized animal exploitation and reduce the number of victims considerably indirectly caused by agriculture.
A sincere concern for animals should begin by assuming veganism as its moral basis. Also, agriculture can be practiced in a vegan-friendly way.
Perhaps the most difficult question would be to determine which vegetables we really need and what quantity to live in so that the argument of necessity would be valid in its application.”
Do we need palm oil? If not, is there another vegetable that should replace it and that would be less harmful to wild animals?
These are pertinent questions. But the ethical question should cover all agriculture and not only that which harms primates.
To sum up, the two main errors that I observe in the usual complaint against palm oil are:
- Saying that “the consumption of palm oil is not vegan.” Palm oil does not come from animals’ use, so it does not violate the principle of veganism.
- To pay attention only to crops that harm primates and to ignore damage to other animals.
Agriculture is a morally legitimate activity, but its existence causes indirect harm to other animals. We should try to eliminate or reduce that harm, regardless of the species of those involved.
Therefore, I do not criticize the denunciation of palm oil cultivation but rather how this denunciation has been motivated and expressed.